Saturday, September 20, 2014

Actual Outrage: The Termination of the iPod Classic

As I advance in years and I subdivide my decreasing energies across an ever greater range of concerns, personal and political, I find that I have to be principled and selective in drawing on the reserves I set aside for outrage.  Thus and so, while I can understand the "hand off my megabytes" attitude the Twittersphere has adopted re Apple's U2 push promotion, I can't get too worked up about it.  After all, whatever U2 and Apple may have inflicted on my hard drive (I say "may have" because I haven't even gone to check), I have over the years dropped full price on other, surely more grievous offenses to my iTunes Library.

— I'm looking at you, Black Keys

That said, I figured I'd throw some thoughts together about what, among the many events of September 9, DID outrage me.

I entered my music-buying years just as cassette tapes were giving way to CD, and I harbored exactly zero sentimentality about transitioning between these media.  The benefits of CDs were NUTS.  You could jump track to track, there was no rewinding required, and you didn't have to live in fear that your favorite LP would spill its guts out in the player, and you'd have to spend hours untwisting and respooling it.  Plus the CDs came out in long boxes you could cut up and tack on your bedroom wall. What could matter more to a 14-year-old boy?

I can't speak to vinyl v. CD, as vinyl went out of play for me years earlier.  My fave records were the soundtrack to Disney's Robin Hood ("Oo-De-Lally") and Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual ("She Bop").  Sound quality and fidelity weren't priorities for me back in those halcyon pre-adolescent days, and in truth, they still aren't.  My first real interest in music came at around age eleven, when I got my first Walkman: "Wait, so I can have absolute sovereign control over what I hear?  And I can completely tune out everything and everybody around me?  SOLD."

So from the moment of the Big Bang (for me), portability was first priority (for me).  Walkman to Discman introduced manipulability and ease of use as values equal to — and now compatible with — portability.  Discman to Nomad, Nomad to iPod brought mass storage, skip-free listening, and battery life.  And done: we had climbed the mountain.  I am holding in my hand right now a 160 GB iPod Classic that holds the entirety of my music collection.  I can take it anywhere, queue up whatever I want to hear at a moment's notice, and the battery runs for days.  All the boxes were checked.  I only bought The White Album once — on CD.  I've skated for years on that single-medium purchase; there needn't be a Tenth Revolution.

So now, umpteen paragraphs into this, I get to a real cause of outrage, one on which as it happens I am expending A LOT of time and energy, including today:

On September 9, while Tim Cook and U2 were loving it up on stage, Apple quietly, stealthily, sleazily discontinued sales of the iPod Classic.  

The Classic I have is I-dunno-how-many years old.  Two years ago I had to replace the headphone jack: I took it into the Back Bay, and they gave it back to me with the seams busted open — "Used to be you could snap these open," the repair specialist told me, "but Apple fuses them together now, and you have to brutalize the device to get it apart.  We clamped it shut as best we could."  My iPod looks like there's music physically bursting out of it.  It's dinged up, the screen scratched all to hell.  It looks just like something I might have carried in my pocket everywhere I've gone for years — with my keys, with pocket change, with stray Legos — because it is.

Well, crap, I thought, when I caught word that Apple was yanking the iPod Classic.  I need to get another one of these.  So I went on the Net to order one.  Turns out I was on the back end of a get-'em-while-you-can buying frenzy.  After an extended period of panic I did find one to buy.  Paid through the nose for it, but now I have an IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS backup iPod Classic.

Last week, over wings, a great friend of mine who works for Bose told me that I'm one of a handful of people in the world who cares about the iPod Classic and its optimization of portability, manipulability, mass storage, and battery life.  Predictably, he started talking to me about Spotify.  And then, grabbing my arm, he started ranting at me, like the Ancient Mariner, about the Next Big Thing: Deezer, the French Spotify-like company that recently partnered with Bose.  Same story — you can listen to whatever you want whenever you want, so long as you have an Internet connection, and whether or not you ever bought a copy of it ten years ago.  "So who needs storage?" he declared.  You frickin' dinosaur, he intimated.  I wiped buffalo sauce off my arm and turned away.

Spotify, Deezer, etc. don't answer my what-ifs.  What if you don't have an Internet connection?  What if you don't have an unlimited data plan?  What if I don't want to share my phone's memory and battery life with my music player's?  Might be this makes me into something of a limited-scope survivalist.  No, I don't store a hundred jugs of water in my basement.  But I need to have at least two iPods, so that when the civil order collapses, the cell towers go down, the Internet goes offline, I can grab a gas-powered generator and wait out the riots listening to The Velvet Underground and Nico.

This is going to come out curmudgeony, but I should note, too, that my iPod, my iTunes Library isn't just a pile of music.  It's a compilation of triggers that allow me to access about a hundred thousand iterations of self.  I want those selves contained and identifiable, because they're mine.  I don't want to have to dip into some massive, fully-licensed hive mind all day every day and extract shards of me from it.


I thank God Apple made the iPod Classic.  I thank God that I rolled out of the cave, Indiana Jones-style, with a second one in my hand before the door closed forever.  But out there in the corner of my consciousness there is this persistent anxiety: What ho, Phutatorius!  All seems well for now, but WHAT IF THEY BOTH BREAK?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

And My Adopted NHL Team Is . . .

PHUTATORIUS
[wait for it]

[wait for it]

now click the "More..." button for the reveal . . .
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. . . the New Winnipeg Jets.

This had to happen, for a number of reasons. To this point, I never felt any compulsion to sign on as a fan of any particular hockey team. Obviously, there is no Cleveland-based team at hockey's top level. It might be said as well, at least arguably, that there is no Cleveland-based team at the top level of any sport, but hockey is distinctive in the respect that there is not actually a team in the NHL that plays its home games in Cleveland.

And so, lacking any family rooting tradition growing up, I wrote off professional hockey. I can't claim any memories of my father listening to hockey games on the radio in the garage, or in the car as we sat in the shopping mall parking lot waiting for my mother to get her fill of J.G. Hook, Evan Picone and other department-store designers. But I feel now a compelling need to pick a hockey team — and pick one fast — because over the last couple weeks I caught myself, once or twice, pulling for the Boston Bruins. And this gravely concerned me.

I've lived in Boston for some thirteen years now, and I wear my disdain — no, let's run with it: my abhorrence — of all Boston sports teams as something of a badge of honor. The '99 Indians playoff losses at Fenway (which I attended) got me started, Manny Ramirez's November 2000 departure overshadowed in my mind the constitutional crisis brought on by the deadlocked Presidential elections, and as much as I supported the Sox in their 2004 bid for the World Series championship, the unspeakable events of November 2007 left me about as embittered and resentful as any Bay State resident can be toward his neighbors. The Celtics recently thwarted the Cavs, the Patriots are the Patriots (and yet somehow the least offensive to me of the Hub's three big-time, non Versus-channel sports franchises), and I've heard enough from Boston fans — on sports talk radio, in Fenway, Gillette, and the Gahden — to want them to know no fan experience other than those associated with defeat, degradation, and demoralization. And the worst thing about it is, of course, that these days the Boston teams do nothing but win championships.

All that said, I have to say I got caught up in the Bs' Stanley Cup run. It helped that the Canucks played like a bunch of thugs, but even so, there remains the fact that the 2010-2011 Bruins were an exceedingly likable team.

I don't like feeling this way. I don't like it at all. And I think I've been vulnerable to suggestion here, and to the undue influence of my the local subbacultcha as well, precisely because as far as hockey goes, I have no overriding loyalty to another team.

Um, let's fix this now. And to do that, let's start with first principles: the default rule in sports fandom is to pick the team that sits geographically closest to your hometown. That won't happen here. The very suggestion that I might support a team from Pittsburgh, wearing black and yellow, sets my stomach abroil and my guts churning. Next closest is Detroit, but there are lines I do not cross, and the Ohio-Michigan border is one of them. Consider, too, that both teams have been historically, as well as recently, successful. Selecting either of them doesn't feel right to a Cleveland fan. It seems too cheap. Too easy. The Blue Jackets might be an option, but to tell the truth, I flat forgot about them until I went back to proofread this paragraph. That's not a good sign.

I suppose the fallback rule, when strict application of the Hometown Rule would sicken you, is to adopt the team that resides in the town you live in now. And that brings us back to D'oh! The whole point of this project is to resist the siren song of the Boston Bruins. No, I will not be governed by rules here. I've had the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers inflicted upon me. Over this I had no control. In this single instance, I arrogate to myself the right to choose a sports team. And there's nothing for this Cleveland fan not to like about the New Winnipeg Jets.

First, you've got to love a hockey team that moves to Canada from Atlanta. This is a sign of the natural order of things reasserting itself.

Second, some time ago Winnipeg lost its first set of Jets. Now a new team arrives in town, and resisting the impulse to "start afresh" with a new team name and jazzy branding — like Washington did with its "Nationals": seriously, why not just name your team the Washington Adjectives? — the city of Winnipeg goes right back to its Jets of old. Where have we seen this scenario played out before? Let this be a sign unto you, fellow Clevelanders.

Third, what I do know about hockey derives almost entirely from the three years I spent in college playing EA Sports' NHL Hockey series on the Sega Genesis. The 1993 NHLPA version of the game was to my mind the strongest, and the most bitterly contested in the dorms. For reasons I don't really remember, the team I played with — and mastered — was the Winnipeg Jets. Yeah, I flirted with Lemieux's Penguins, but it made me feel dirty (see above). I played with Washington ("Shingtonwa," we called them) and the Rangers, too. I saw my share of Rangers games when I lived in New York, and if I can be fairly said to have an All-Time Favorite Actual Hockey Player, it's Mark Messier.

But more important to me and my daily life as a college student was my All-Time Favorite Sega Hockey Player, who wasn't Messier (although he was a beast). My ATFSHP was Old #6, defenseman for the Winnipeg Jets, PHILIP FRANCIS HOUSLEY. Phil Housley was a frickin' awesome Sega hockey player, and I daresay he and I had a kind of chemistry that made him an even better player, even more unstoppable in defense and in the attacking zone, when my two thumbs were on the controller. I can't say for sure this was true, but there was just something there. And I gather from the Internets that Housley also existed and flourished in real life. Go figure.

Fourth, I'm conditioned to root for the underdog. Now gentle citizens of Winnipeg, please forgive me if, lacking anything close to full knowledge of your city's resources and the team roster you've inherited from the erstwhile Atlanta Thrashers, I should peg your new hockey franchise as a small-market underdog. You are located in frigid, sparsely populated Manitoba, after all. You're north of North Dakota. And that means something to me.

Fifth, and finally, I have a good friend from Winnipeg. He's told me what the Jets meant to his hometown and what it means to have them back. And he lives in Boston, so we'll have one another's back when our newly beloved team skates into the Garden next year.

Yes, this just feels right.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Boston Herald Pitches a Fit

The Boston Herald reports that "Outrage Builds [at the Boston Herald] over Obama Snub of . . ."

— wait for it —

". . . the Herald." Howie Carr likens the snub, described elsewhere by the Herald as a "freezing out" of "full access" to cover the President's visit to Boston, to inclusion on President Nixon's "Enemies List."

And one sees straightaway why the Obama Administration is disinclined to extend to the Herald the full array of access privileges available to serious journalists.
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Let's be clear: this isn't a First Amendment issue. Denying "full access" to the President isn't censorship, even if, as it appears, the decision was made at least in part because Obama's aides think the Herald has not treated him "fairly." There is a press pool. It's crowded, there is limited space, and it sits amply within the Administration's discretion to decide how to allocate that space.

Is a review of a paper's previous coverage for "fairness" an appropriate consideration in allocating that space? To be sure, the Administration's decision sounds punitive. White House spokesman Matt Lehrich explained his thinking as follows:

I tend to consider the degree to which papers have demonstrated to covering the White House regularly and fairly in determining local pool reporters. . . . I think (the Romney op-ed) raises a fair question about whether the paper is unbiased in its coverage of the president’s visits.
Now I don't think anyone can deny that Lehrich made a poor tactical decision writing all this down in an email message for the Herald to reprint. And I'll admit, too, that claims of bias are tiresome and we all should be "troubled" whenever a government figure takes action against a reporter based on what he writes. But let's pause to consider what that action was: "freezing out" of "full access" to the President's visit to the Hub. Not exactly jack-booted thugs kicking down a door and shooting up the Herald's printing press. And with a reporter from Human Events currently holding a chair in the White House briefing room, I'm pretty comfortable that the White House isn't excluding contrary viewpoints.

But that said, a decision to deny the Herald "full access" is entirely consistent with an important theme that the President himself continues to articulate: in recent years our politics have deteriorated to the point where they severely inhibit our ability even to identify seriously problems, much less work together to solve them. And the President is not wrong to assign to the media a share of the responsibility for the deterioration of our politics.

One look at Carr's gagged-up slurry of petulant populism (yeah, Howie: it doesn't take a genius to write this way) — which of course wouldn't have been complete without references to the President as "Hussein" and descriptions of Globe reporters as "spayed" and "neutered" — makes it quite clear that the Administration wasn't wrong to conclude that maybe someone other than the Herald deserved one of the coveted "full access" slots.

Carr writes:

The Herald is for people who didn’t move here from New York to look down their noses at everyone who has calluses on their hands, who aren’t consumed by guilt about the trust funds that support them in their leisure.
Yes, fine, Howie. But I think the President's point is that the folks with calluses on their hands are owed something better than what you and your colleagues give them every day. You can have your tantrums, Boston Herald, and you can forgo actual news to devote no fewer than 5 stories and columns in today's paper to your trumped-up incident of press martyrdom and "we speak truth to power" meme. Nobody's going to shut down your press. But we don't have to take you so seriously as to put you on the White House bus. And we don't, either, need to accept your strained Nixon analogies, which would make you who? Woodward and Bernstein?

Please.

Friday, December 10, 2010

WikiLeaks, Subprime Lenders, & "Government Pressure"

Anyone following the WikiLeaks story knows that the website itself has been as much on the run as its principals — and now, with Assange in the custody of the British authorities awaiting extradition to Sweden, perhaps even more so. Amazon recently gave WikiLeaks.org the boot, the site recently lost its .org domain name, and if you're interested in supporting the WikiLeaks organization, PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa can't help you.

These results have generally been attributed to "pressure" from the United States government, and depending on where you sit politically, your reason to cry foul might range from the thoughtful ("This sort of extrajudicial pressure is undemocratic.") to, you know, hers ("C'mon, Obama: deploy the snipers, already.").
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Let's put aside for the moment protests from the State Department and DOJ that they have not, in fact, been working the phones with the credit card companies.

If you are a cardholder calling about abusive finance charges, press 1. If you are Hillary Clinton, and you're calling about WikiLeaks, press 2 . . .

Even taking State and Justice at their word, the U.S. government has — ahem — other instrumentalities that can do this sort of behind-the-scenes work. And for that matter, the government can apply pressure on WikiLeaks's corporate contractors without contacting them directly. The nationally broadcast rumblings from a certain U.S. Senator against the New York Times, word from DOJ that it is continues to consider its criminal enforcement options against Assange — this sort of thing raises red flags for the legal and PR departments of large corporate institutions. Talk of government action against WikiLeaks and, more importantly, another large corporate institution that has had dealings with WikiLeaks, might certainly be enough to give Amazon pause to think about how important its hosting relationship with WikiLeaks really is.

But of course, I'm speculating. And herein lies the problem in judging the actions taken by the government to date: we really don't know what the government has been up to, and we don't know what role it's played in prompting the Amazon takedown and the credit card kissoffs. It seems plausible, by which I mean "obvious," that these results are attributable at least in part to direct or indirect government (as opposed to public) pressure. But absent any of the deets, we're stuck with that exceedingly vague word: pressure.

When I hear complaints about unelaborated "government pressure," I'm put in mind of the 2008 election, when the American right, put to the task of trying to explain how the financial crisis was entirely the fault of the American left, complained that the government "pressured" banks to make the lousy subprime loans that, in the end, precipitated the destruction of our economy. (Here's a post-election rendition of that argument, from a predictable source.) And as a right-minded Obama supporter, I raised the appropriate objections, one of which focused on the term "pressure," which the argument's adherents seemed to have left deliberately vague. What does "pressure" mean? Something short of force, presumably, but other than that, no details. Can it really be said that a financial institution, in the modern U.S. of A., will ever succumb to "government pressure" and take on business it doesn't want to have? In the end, of course, it was the banks that issued the loans, and just as emphasis on the alleged government pressure did the rhetorical work of lifting agency from the banks, we risk letting Amazon et al. off the hook here in the same way. And we shouldn't, necessarily.

More importantly, government exerts pressure on corporations in all sorts of ways, some of which are more benign and democratic than others. Perhaps President Obama works the bully pulpit to prompt improved remedial action from BP, or the aforementioned Senator wanders into a cable news studio and calls for federal investigation of the Times. We might be inclined to critique either of these undertakings, based on our feelings about the speakers and corporations involved. But these surely do not constitute the sort of government pressure that undermines our democracy. After all, public officials have always been entitled to leverage their power over corporations through speech, and this is a tradition we should continue, given that corporations are, we're told, very much entitled to do the converse.

Contrast a species of pressure that I think would indeed be sorely troubling, as a democratic matter: imagine that DOJ did contact Amazon and threaten to charge its principals under the godawfully vague espionage laws still on the books, if it didn't give WikiLeaks.org the boot. In theory DOJ could have brandished similar charges at the payment processors, on an aiding and abetting theory. And if/when WikiLeaks ever finds itself listed as a designated terror organization, PayPal and card companies could be charged for providing it with "material support." A considerably greater pressure would be brought to bear under these circumstances, and at its root is the monopoly on force. For that matter, if the government threatened or executed cyberattacks on the target companies, then I would agree that the government pressure would be inappropriately applied and of grave concern to our constitutional, democratic system.

The thing is, we just don't know what's gone on outside of the public view. We don't know what sort of pressure the government might have applied to Amazon, PayPal, and the card companies, and so we're stuck. Hm. If only there were somebody out there — some sort of organization — that could get hold of the details and pass them along to the public . . .

Friday, May 14, 2010

FO News Roundup: May 14, 2010

Been a while, but we're alive and well. Well, I am.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

On Unintended Consequences and Happy Meals

PHUTATORIUS
Supervisors in Santa Clara County, California participated in America's great experiment of "laboratory federalism" last week by enacting a law that prohibits restaurants from providing toys with children's meals, unless the accompanying food meets certain nutritional standards.

Wow.
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The regulation, which for the sake of shorthand we'll call "the Unhappy Meal Law," only applies in areas where the county supervisors are the sovereign local authority — i.e., only in those pockets of land in Santa Clara County that are not incorporated into a city or town (which of course can pass their own laws). Thus, rather than entirely beat back the hordes of junk plastic movie tie-in action figures past the county lines, the law only makes Happy Meal toys a little less ubiquitous in fast food restaurants in the county. This will, of course, cause great confusion and consternation among Bay Area five-year-olds, who absent access to a GPS device, a county map, and an understanding of California's principles of local government and jurisdiction, won't know on a given day whether, where, or why they won't be getting a Mermaid Barbie doll with their cheeseburgers. And it's just this sort of random arrangement of cause and consequence that, according to behavioral psychologists, leads to "learned helplessness" and depression.

But hey — at least our kids won't be obese. At least that's the thinking, as county supervisors, applying the "Joe Camel principle," have concluded that Happy Meal toys draw children to fast-food restaurants, where they become tracked into the habit of eating unhealthy food.

Needless to say, I have some thoughts on this subject. Four fingers of thoughts, in fact:

☞ McDonald's introduced the Happy Meal in 1979. I remember when this happened. My father took me to McDonald's every Saturday. It was one of my favorite things in the whole world. Then one day I got to McDonald's, I read the menu, and I realized that not only was I going to get a burger and fries for lunch, but I was going to get a toy, too. And McDonald's became even more awesome.

Because I went to McDonald's, as a child, both before and after McDonald's launched the Happy Meal, I can count myself as something of an authority on the drawing effect of Happy Meal toys. As I recall my state of mind in the Pre-Happy Meal Era, I always frickin' wanted to go to McDonald's for lunch. And of course, in the Happy Meal Era, I always frickin' wanted to go to McDonald's for lunch. Check my math, Mithridates, but as I calculate this, the net drawing effect of Happy Meal toys = 0. Zero.

☞ Whether or not I actually did go to McDonald's for lunch as a child was a question that turned not so much on what I wanted to do, but on what my parents wanted to do. And of course, now that I'm fully grown with children of my own, I'm the one who gets to make the call on whether my children get to go to McDonald's. So now that we've dispensed with the notion that Happy Meal toys make children marginally and meaningfully more interested in McDonald's, it seems worthwhile to cover the effect of the toys on parents' decisions.

OH MY GOD LET'S PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE GET RID OF THE HAPPY MEAL TOYS SO I CAN EAT MORE BIG MACS WITHOUT JUNKING UP MY HOUSE!!!!

[deep breath]

Yes, um, where were we? Oh, right: I always frickin' want to go to McDonald's for lunch. But if I'm with the kids, then they're of course going to come along, and that means I'm going to bring home more godawful nine-cent hunks of plastic that will, without fail, find their way into my bed, into my bathtub, under foot as I walk through the dark into the bathroom, between couch cushions for me to sit on. So yes, if anything, the Happy Meal toys actually reduce my interest in taking the kids to McDonald's. Seriously.

☞ Anyone who has actually given a child a Happy Meal knows that the accompanying toy actually reduces the amount of food the child will ingest. The logic is simple: if you give a kid a big pile of greasy, delicious junk food, he'll eat it. If you give the kid the same big pile of greasy, delicious junk food and a toy, he'll find himself torn between eating the junk food and playing with the toy. If you withhold the toy until the kid is done with his lunch, he will in most cases prematurely declare the lunch finished and actually allow you to throw out his McNuggets and fries so that he can get a crack at the toy.

I've seen this dynamic at work: just today I took The Boy to McDonald's. No toy, I said, until we got into the car. The Boy ate one McNugget and insisted that lunch was over. I told him that we were going to sit for a few more minutes ("for our digestion") before leaving. If he wanted to have some more lunch during that time, he was welcome to do so. The Boy ate two more McNuggets and a fistful of fries. Q.E. freakin' D.

☞ Finally, consider how McDonald's might respond to the Unhappy Meal law. If McDonald's accepts, as Santa Clara County does (and I don't), that Happy Meal toys make their restaurant more attractive to children, and therefore families, then they'll have to find some other way to market to children. Deprived of the ability to offer collateral inducements, they'll have to beef up (pun intended) their food offerings. And since it's axiomatic that food is more appealing when it tastes better, and that the worse food is for you, the better it tastes — well, McDonald's now has an incentive to make its food even greasy, junkier, and more delicious. And/or cheaper.

I could talk more about how a county restriction means city kids get toys and country kids don't, how the Unhappy Meal law seems entirely predicated on the suggestion that parents don't know how to say no to their children, and so on. But it ought to be enough to note that either the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors don't have kids and never were kids, or they just didn't think this one through.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Lieberman's Absurd Miranda Workaround

PHUTATORIUS
Here we go again. Another terror arrest, another round of trumped-up hand-wringing from the right about having to "read rights to terrorists." Once again, it seems this "rights = soft on terror" concern is much more theoretical than practical, because the Times Square Rube Goldberg Smoking Car Bomber is talking.

Never mind all that, says Joe Lieberman: we need to strip homegrown terrorists of their citizenship. If we can do that, then we don't have to worry about all these rights, and we can do anything we want to these jerks:
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“I’m now putting together legislation to amend that to [specify that] any individual American citizen who is found to be involved in a foreign terrorist organization, as defined by the Department of State, would be deprived of their citizenship rights,” Lieberman said Tuesday.

This would be a clever answer to the Miranda "problem," if indeed (1) there were a problem, (2) this approach resolved the problem, and (3) it were clever. But Lieberman's whacked-out law doesn't meet any of these three conditions. Here's why:

We don't always know if a person is innocent or guilty.

The rights and protections we extend to criminal suspects and defendants are designed, among other reasons, to ensure that the state doesn't manufacture guilt. Folks in America don't disappear into black holes of detention — without access to attorneys, under conditions that allow law enforcement to extract forced confessions — not because we think criminals deserve kid-glove treatment, but because it would really suck to have that happen to you, if you weren't a criminal.

So let's imagine life in Joe Lieberman's World. You're sitting on a plane, on the tarmac at JFK. You're looking forward to your vacation. Tray tables are up, you've switched off your cell phone, and suddenly federal agents storm into coach and carry you off. They're thinking you tried to blow up a car in Times Square. Well, there's obviously some mistake; a quick call to your attorney will help clear all this up, except someone just declared that you're "involved in a foreign terrorist organization." No lawyer, then. You're back out on the tarmac now, but it's a military transport plane, and you're heading to Bagram, and not Barcelona.

How could this have happened? you ask. Well, it's frighteningly simple. You've been accused of terrorism. Terrorism is an awful, awful crime — so awful, in fact, that just being accused of it is enough to see you stripped you of your citizenship and all the rights that flow from that. Even if the rights bear importantly on the question whether you're a terrorist at all.

Ick. Nice one, Joe.

Of course, that's not the case here at all. Faisal Shahzad has freely confessed his guilt already. We know he tried to kill dozens, if not hundreds of innocent people, over some unspecified grievance that may have something to do with frickin' South Park. So yes, even this purported bleeding-heart liberal correspondent actually would love to see this guy beaten, waterboarded, and humiliated in public (Times Square seems an appropriate forum). And what the heck, when we're done with him, let's strip the guy of his American citizenship. I'm all for that. Screw Faisal Shahzad.

But do we have to strip folks of their citizenship before we know whether they're guilty of terrorism — for the express purpose of facilitating a finding that they're guilty of terrorism? That's the worst kind of legal bootstrapping. It's beneath America. Hell, it's even beneath Glenn Beck. It's just not beneath Senator Lieberman.

Joe, you, too, have the right to remain silent, and we well and truly wish you'd exercise that right a little more often.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Bush Wipes Hand on Clinton

MITHRIDATES
Funny. You would think a good Republican would want to wipe his hand on a Haitian after touching the man whose lending policies caused the financial crisis and whose failure to pursue Al Qaeda led to 9/11, not the other way around.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tiger's Texts: A Lawyer's Take

PHUTATORIUS
If anyone wondered why "adult film actress" and reputed lover of Tiger Woods Joslyn James felt the need to go out and retain a big-time lawyer, the picture is getting clearer by the day. Here's my "lawyer's take" on what's going on:

Yeah, sure, Joslyn James was going to find herself in the glare of the public eye, and a lawyer can help manage the publicity and keep the press at bay (i.e., "That one's lawyered up, and Allred is something fierce. Maybe I won't try to break in Joslyn James's house and get pictures of her in the shower.").

But James isn't just in a defensive posture. Consider that she invited press to listen along beside her as she took in Tiger's self-serving soliloquy back on February 19. Consider, too, that when Tiger was finished, Ms. James took the podium and delivered her own tearful statement, demanding a direct apology from Woods. An awkward angle to try to work, this "I thought I was the only Other Woman" bit. But the statement was thick with shots across the bow of Woods's legal team: little tidbits of information that might add up to lawsuit against Tiger. She loves Tiger, and he made her promises. She had pregnancies that ended in miscarriage and abortion. She gave up her career at his request. Yeah, Gloria and Joslyn are laying the groundwork for threatening all sorts of legal claims. Lousy claims, but claims nonetheless, and the point isn't whether you can win or lose on these lousy claims; the point is whether you can get Tiger to pay you some money to make sure they don't end up in court to begin with. What Tiger will pay to settle these claims has very little to do with the value of the claims themselves. He's confronting a potential lawsuit, brought by his mistress, which will extend this scandal for another couple years well past the endpoint he'd hope to establish for it (with his apology speech) and vivisect his sordid personal life, laying it open for the world to see in public legal proceedings.

Which brings us now to the text messages that Joslyn James recently released to the press.
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This is hardball. Joslyn James earlier said that she has some 11,000 text messages from Tiger Woods. She released a small subset — only around 100 — of those messages. Release of the messages suggests what should have been obvious following Ms. James' delivery of her counterstatement on February 18: that Allred and Woods's attorneys are negotiating a settlement that will keep James from suing Woods and posting any more damaging information to the media. One of the following is true: (1) they're not close to a deal, or (2) they've reached a deal, and James released the texts anyway. Both scenarios are intriguing.

Scenario (1) suggests that Joslyn James has information far more damaging than what she released yesterday — and the texts she released yesterday were pretty darn damaging, describing Woods' interest in sadistic sex acts. No way no how does Gloria Allred let Joslyn James disclose the most lurid info she has. If this were the worst of it, Woods's attorneys would have no reason to bargain with her, as James couldn't hurt Woods any more than she has to date. We therefore have to assume that the ~100 texts that James disclosed yesterday were carefully selected to generate a modest amount of media buzz (thereby getting her back in the news) but not so much as to leave Allred without leverage going forward. We have to assume that there is something much worse in the rest of the 11,000 texts (or, theoretically, in some other explosive format: video?).

Moreover, the timing of the release was calculated: Tiger announced on Tuesday that he would return from his golf hiatus to play in the Masters next month. He's starting to get back into business as usual, and he's back in the news, too. James counters with the release of the text, which destroys any positive PR momentum he has.

Under Possibility (2), Woods and James have already reached agreement, and James has been already received a lump-sum payment of hush money. There is presumably an enforceable contract here, negotiated by attorneys: Woods pays James an unspecified amount (confidential, of course, per the terms of the contract), and James hands over any documentation of the affair for Woods to destroy. But of course, James could always surreptitiously keep a copy of her materials, to publicize after she cashes her check. This would be a breach of the contract, and Woods could sue her, but would he? If he did, well, there's that very public lawsuit again, and on top of all the other nastiness that would come out about the affair, there would be this new distasteful overlay: Tiger wrote a big check to keep this girl quiet, and now he's suing her over it. In theory, then, James could get paid both by Woods (to keep quiet) and by the press (to spill her secrets). Woods's lawyers, if they have any sense, would therefore have every reason to structure the deal to require payments over time — perhaps an annuity — so that they could preserve some leverage over James going forward, other than resort to the courts. We should assume that Woods's lawyers have quite a lot of sense, such that Scenario (2) is therefore the much less likely of the two here.

All of the above analysis is predicated on the assumption — and I think this is right — that James stands to gain more from Tiger if she withholds her information than she can get from anyone in the press if she discloses it all. The value of a "hot news" exclusive, in this day and age, isn't really all that. Once the texts are out, anyone can pick them up and run with them. It makes sense that Tiger would pay millions to James to keep her quiet; it makes much less sense that a media organization would pay a comparable amount to break this story five minutes before everybody else.

And of course another assumption is in play: that James isn't just an irrational "woman scorned" figure here, whose interest is simply to throw everything she has at Tiger, to hurt him as badly as she can, and damn the settlement offers. This seems to me unlikely. You don't hire Gloria Allred unless you want to work an angle, and Gloria Allred doesn't continue to represent you if you're delivering all your best stuff to the press in anger. And for that matter: ELEVEN THOUSAND TEXTS? James was clearly archiving these messages, either as keepsakes because she loved Tiger so much or rather to save for a rainy day — or a day of opportunity. Hm.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jacko Lives! (Or So We Believe)

PHUTATORIUS
Word came out today that Michael Jackson's estate just cut a $250 million deal with Sony Music. The quarter billion goes to Jacko, Inc. in exchange for "unreleased songs and older tracks recorded by Jackson" — in other words, all the dribs and drabs of music that the King of Pop committed to tape but failed to release before dying.

Not exactly the "reissue, repackage, REPACKAGE" phenomenon that the Smiths described in "Paint a Vulgar Picture," but we see today the value that premature death can bring to a pop star's career. A pile of master tapes deemed at least to this point unfit for mass distribution wholesales to Sony for $250 extra-large. Hm.

Anybody else believe that Michael Jackson isn't really dead?
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Just stop for a minute and consider the logic of it. At the time he "died," Michael was, by all accounts, some $300 million in debt. The plan he'd announced to bring himself back into the black? A ten-gig comeback stand in London, followed by three more years of world touring, if he delivered on the gigs in England. The very concept betrays how desperate he was: the guy was broken. Reclusive, narcissistic, zonked on painkillers. He was our generation's Howard Hughes, except in one important respect: he was broke. And to get out of debt he was going to take to the stage? Nope. Uh-uh. That was never going to work. It was no surprise that this last-ditch effort was falling apart. Dates were postponed, rumors were swirling about Jackson's health, and the tour promoters had to be poring over the fine print of the insurance policy they surely bought at the time they cut this deal.

At this point, Michael Jackson was a complete loss. He couldn't do public performances. He wasn't releasing new material. There's only so many times you can promote a back catalog. It wouldn't take a genius to run the numbers and conclude, with all the cynicism of Bialystock and Bloom, that on a going-forward basis Michael Jackson was worth more dead than alive. And of course subsequent events bore this out: Thriller and Off the Wall surging to the top of the charts in the weeks after Jacko's "death"; a slapped-together film release and accompanying soundtrack album; and now this nine-figure deal to release demos and B-sides that might never have sold on the merits, but now can be promoted as Michael Jackson's "final word" in the studio.

If you were a onetime pop superstar, world-renowned, critically acclaimed, but now broke, introverted, and slipping into cultural irrelevance — if you were desperate to square your accounts and just cash out — you might consider faking your own death. And if you had all the aforementioned characterizations and motivations, and you were at the level of Michael Jackson, well, faking your own death probably wouldn't be impossible to accomplish. The guy had resources — he had minders, bodyguards, publicists, personal physicians. We know, too, that Jacko wasn't exactly running scared of plastic surgery, which would surely be in order if he wanted to ensure that he could dissolve anonymously, into the general population.

It's not hard to imagine. You're in a rundown town, far away and off the beaten track — maybe somewhere in Southeast Asia, where sex trafficking isn't so much a crime as a local specialty — and you see a middle-aged man limping painfully along down a dirt road with a bag slung over his shoulder. The man's face is gashed and scarred beyond recognition. His frame is slight, and his skin bone-white. The sleeves of his jacket are pulled up over his forearms. Maybe the man's rocking gait seems a bit affected; if you look closely, you might sees flashes of a dancer's grace in this man's slumping stride. Now and again he reaches down with one hand, grabs hold of his groin, and gasps, as if he's in pain.

Just another drifter, this guy. Hard knocks, hard life. The man mutters, grunts, hoots, winces, as he passes you. It's nearly dusk, and as the sky darkens, it appears that the road seems to light up just a little as this man passes by. Surely that was a trick of the light, you think. Angles and reflections, from the setting sun.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Thailand II: Third Toilet

MITHRIDATES
Thailand's a Third World country. By some definition of Third World. But who even knows what that means, anyway? India's a Third World country, too, but would you rather be reborn as an average Indian or an average Thai? This one's easy folks. Way easy. So since Third World doesn't really mean much these days, I've decided we desperately need a new way to classify countries.

To those foreign readers in the First World who are used to thinking of themselves at the top of the heap, be prepared to be offended. To those Americans whose idea of international travel is to stay in five-star resorts that could be anywhere, you'll have no idea what I'm talking about. As in, "we stayed at the Ritz Bali for a week. I thought the Indonesians were very advanced . . ."

The following refers to what you can expect in public places, restaurants, and the median home. This scientific analysis involved one person traveling to geographically clustered destinations, non-randomly sampling the facilities, and reconstructing the data based on memories ranging from one hour to fifteen years old.
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First Toilet: A 99+% certainty that toilet paper can be flushed without damaging the system. Guaranteed porcelain seating. Seats even at truck stops and train stations.

The United States sits atop the world in a class by itself. There's a reason they say American Standard on them. That means something. The First Toilet has a few defining characteristics: You can really only be certain of such luxury in the US and fifty miles or less into Canada.

I know some of our American readers are going through their life experiences and recalling some horror at a gas station or bus stop at some point in their life. But venture down the list a bit and be thankful for what we have here.

First toilet countries: US, Near Canada

Second Toilet: You're pretty safe here. Risk of disease is very low and things are likely to be clean, but you're only 90% guaranteed flush-able paper and less than 100% guaranteed a seat.

You arrive on the overnight train to Paris at 7am and the toxins from your three days in Amsterdam have finally caught up to you. You head straight for the first decent-looking café, order a drink and head right to the toilette. The closet size enclosure is clean all right, but there's no actual toilet. Just two foot pads and a hole in the spotless floor.

This is Paris!! In France! This is decidedly First World, they were once an undeniable super-power, and some people even now consider them friendly rivals with the US for the title of Greatest Nation on Earth. Yet at a café in their capital city you might actually have to squat to use the toilet! You might actually be able to perform, but there is this nagging shred of doubt in your mind. What if this isn't the toilet, after all? I mean really, what happens then? So you realize the nearby Musée D'Orsay is about to open, buy your ticket and head for the porcelain bliss of a hermetically sealed one-shooter on the first floor. The Monets never looked so good.

Second Toilet countries: France, Holland, UK, Ireland, Italy, Israel

Third Toilet: There's nothing pleasant about your average experience, but you're 90% successful and safe. You might have to shell out a few baht for entry at the bus station in Thailand, but if that keeps traffic to a minimum and pays for cleaning, you're more than happy to pay. It doesn't smell great and you're not inspired to crack open the paper, but you always leave in better shape than you came in. So despite the low GDP per capita, Thailand, perhaps through reliance on a booming tourist industry, actually maintains decent rest rooms. Even on the train itself, with things shaking around, a post-mystery soup trip to the can is uneventful, clean, and safe. What a country!

Third Toilet countries: Thailand, Ecuador, Greece

Fourth Toilet: You won't die, but you're willing to take a 10% or more chance of catastrophe rather the use the toilet found in the train station of the capital city.

You were out the night before in Madrid and are catching the morning train to Toledo (why again?). You and your brother make a desperate run to the train station facilities before your train departs as last night's Sangria and sausage are on the move. You put your pesetas in the coin-operated door. You brother says "Mine's broken." You open the door to your stall to see a seatless bowl covered in grime and paper. You consider how it might be done and nothing seems remotely acceptable. "Mine's broken, too," you say. You have no choice but to battle it out and hope the commode on the train is marginally better (which it is, thankfully).

Here we have a full-fledged Fourth Toilet country right in Western Europe. Wonderful country, great food, nice people, delicious wine, but the European Union needs to stop worrying so much about deficits and GDP per capita and start refusing entry to countries that can't maintain decent commodes.

Fourth Toilet countries: Spain, China

Fifth Toilet: The lowest designation refers only to those benighted places where proper precautions are necessary to ensure that you don't actually catch hepatitis or worse from going to the bathroom.

You're on a twelve-hour train ride in a second-class coach in India. Things are rolling around and you have to bite the bullet. The tiny compartment in the rear consists of a small hole, a filthy tin cup on a chain, and a rusty faucet.

Now suppose you manage to get the job done despite all the shaking and having nothing to hold on to. You still wonder how exactly you're supposed to make yourself more clean by filling up that nasty tin cup and splashing plague water around your nether regions. There's just no way.

Or take the public restroom at the train station. Mostly out of respect for the next person who might shake your hand, I believe you should wash with soap and water after handling your penis in the process of urinating. But what if your penis is the cleanest thing in the entire bathroom? What if there's a legitimate chance that your hands get dirty and diseased from touching the faucet and paper towel dispenser (was there one? You might be making up the dispenser).

Look, with all due respect there are probably filthier countries on the planet — this reporter just hasn't been there yet.

Fifth Toilet countries: India

All categorizations are subject to review. Please share your stories if you think any country has been rated too high . . .

Friday, February 26, 2010

FO News Roundup: February 27, 2010

Special Weekend Edition!
  • You know, you try and try and try to stay "neutral" in world affairs, and still some psycho foists a jihad on you. What's a country like Switzerland to do? (P)
  • Some 700 Club intern just got called in on the weekend to figure out how Chile might have offended Pat Robertson's God. Better get that research done by Sunday, dude, or you'll be struck by lightning. (P)
  • Talk about your tin ear for politics: PETA's protesting Sea World shows that exploit murderous killer whales that kill. (P)
  • Jenny Sanford gets to divorce her husband. Why doesn't the rest of South Carolina? (P)
  • Just like A-Rod to get into a "fender bender" in his Maybach. If you're gonna crash a half-million dollar sports car, frickin' do it right. (P)
  • Rick Perry is poised to win the Republican primary for Governor of Texas. And of course, if he loses, he'll run for President. Of Texas. (P)
  • C'mon, Fitty: what's the point of being a famous hip-hop artist, if you have to Photoshop yourself into amateur sex videos? (P)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cyborgs on Ice!

PHUTATORIUS
I have a long list of grievances about figure skating. A long list that, if I had little else to do during my workday, would lend itself to an extended extended extended post (and you'd love it, too, ONTRI!). But I'll do only a "short program" today, as I mean to discuss a most strongly-held pet peeve: the flesh-colored tights that the women are increasingly wearing over their skates.


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First, a disclaimer: I raise this issue not as some sexist couch jockey who is determined to objectify female athletes by critiquing their wardrobe and equipment selections. I really don't care what Lindsay Vonn or Dara Torres wear when they compete; if they think a burqa will make them faster, they should go for it. Just bring home medals to the U.S. of A.

But figure skating's different, of course. Figure skating is a sport predicated entirely on aesthetics: [sadly,] it's all about how you look. So I have to ask the question: what in the name of Dick Button is remotely appealing about flesh-colored tights over skates? For starters, it's not at all convincing. You're not hiding anything, ladies. That's current points leader Kim Yu Na in the photos above (credit: New York Times). Check out that first picture: either Kim has some kind of grotesque protruding bone spur, she's acquired by mutation or surgery an additional joint midway between her knee and ankle, or that unsightly bulge is the poorly-concealed top of her skate. Who is she kidding? WHO?

And of course there are the skate blades. You can "flesh up" the boot, but not the blades. So even if we bought into the fiction that is apparently intended here — that the skates have been fully integrated into Kim's body, that "they are a part of her" — we have to accept that Kim has metal skate blades either screwed into or growing out of the soles of her feet. The very suggestion is, to me, horrifying. If this sport means to tap into our several souls' common craving to witness beauty — if its appeal is to that part of us that deeply appreciates the human form, its capacity for grace and will to perfection — why are we turning our female skaters into cyborgs? This isn't figure skating. It's disfigure skating.

The only possible justification I can muster for this offensive trend is that blending the skate boots into the legs might allow skaters to bluff mistakes past the judges. I write this knowing very little about figure skating, but I throw it out as a possibility. And then I throw the possibility out, too, as it seems to me that judges should be able to see through that sort of crap anyway, and if I were a judge I wouldn't particularly take to a skater who resorted to this sort of trick.

For years now people have been using ice skates to ice skate. It's sort of a requirement of ice skating that I think all of us in the crowd accept. In the spirit of our common humanity — and in recognition of how ice skating works — show us your skates, ladies. Please. There's no downside to it, and you'll be substantially less freakish and terrifying. And Mithridates says he'll give you beads.

The Blame America Crowd

MITHRIDATES
Last week a militant launched a deadly terrorist attack on US soil. Most reasonable people came out and unconditionally condemned the attack, but others sympathized with the perpetrator's motivation while condemning the violence. Comments (assume [sic]s where warranted) include:
This is just the start of things like this. I DISAGREE with the way this guy rebelled, but i fully understand is frustration!!!"
and
I feel for the guy and I'm sure that there are many more out there who feel the same way. Of course, killing yourself and taking others with you is a horrible and wrong thing to do.
Others went further and actually saw good in the attack . . .
Hopefully, with such extreme measures a few Americans that actually posses a good head on their shoulders will take notice, and then TAKE ACTION
. . . or even worse, took the opportunity to threaten more violence against the American people:
Go here and do a little research before something with jets or propellers falls on your head...
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Other crazies displayed an all-too-familiar willingness to blame America first, claiming that the US government brought this action on themselves. Rep. King's reaction was to lambast federal policy, while adding (with a sickening smile) that the attack was unfortunate. These people are clearly "prime example[s] of the 'hate-America crowd,' . . . dripping with contempt for the nation's politics, its leaders, its economic system and for their foolish fellow citizens.'' Some notable conservatives have even D'gone so far as to call flying planes into American buildings courageous.

Our tax policies have indeed caused hardship. I mean how should an independent IT contractor be expected to know how to legally deduct a piano on his tax form? But ask these America haters in what other country low-tax supporters would feel more welcome. France? Not even close. Canada? Laughable.

For the most part, no one is seriously blaming the incident in Austin on anyone but the attacker (a Bush-hating, church-bashing, anti-tax, anti-everyone nutjob), despite the usual victim game played by certain righty types. That tiresome game, of course, involves combing through every corner of every article in search of a suggestion of commonality between the perpetrator and the Tea Party Movement: further evidence that the mainstream media is out to get you!

Of course, supporters of lower taxes (like Bush-haters and church-bashers) are mostly peaceful people who are appalled by the violence of those claiming to act in their name. But the low-tax community needs to root out the militants among them and speak with one voice, condemning these actions unconditionally.

And what about all those nutjobs out there who actually sympathize with and support the terrorists?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

FO News Roundup, February 23, 2010

Seven bullets today:
  • Mass killer and IHOP suckerpuncher Amy Bishop may have planted a "herpes bomb" in her lab building. The jokes just write themselves these days. (P)
  • Apple's iPhone Patrol: please leave the sex apps to the professionals, people. But as always, keep the fart apps coming. (P)
  • Nurse, get me 100 ccs of Viagra, with a Cialis chaser. Boner's gone missing! (P)
  • If Elvis left the building, would Schiphol air security notice? Because they sure as hell didn't see him coming in. (P)
  • Have a heart, Albania. (Yeah, we've done that line before, but who's gonna know?) (P)
  • Brown votes for the jobs bill. What kind of Republican are you, Scott? (P)
  • Lost in the Fox News outrage: the patriotic hero of their story thinks the Pledge of Allegiance is the "national anthem." (P)

DKG, The Economist Jump the "Make 'Em Filibuster" Bandwagon!

PHUTATORIUS
The Economist observes that the filibuster is too easy, if you don't actually have to do it:
In the Senate the filibuster is used too often, in part because it is too easy. Senators who want to talk out a bill ought to be obliged to do just that, not rely on a simple procedural vote: voters could then see exactly who was obstructing what.

This comes on the heels of Doris Kearns Goodwin's interview on The Daily Show, in which she, too, argued that Dems should call the GOP's filibuster bluff.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Doris Kearns Goodwin
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Of course, we opined on this matter weeks ago. Now that not just one but two august publication and an esteemed Presidential scholar have weighed in on the question, can't you see, Democrats, that the answer is right in front of you?

Oh, and you heard it here first.