Saturday, January 31, 2009

I've Just Revolutionized Grocery Shopping

Here's how: you put scanners into the shopping carts.

Customer comes to the store, get a cart with a built-in scanner. He wanders the aisles, fills up his cart — and every time he drops something in, he scans it first. His bill is instantly totaled by the time he's done shopping. Shopper swipes a credit card — that could be built into the cart, too — and he's paid and can go straight out to his car. Done. Easy. Brilliant.
Oh, sure, the tabloid publishers won't like it: their marketing model depends on people standing, bored, in a checkout line. You could expect to see a number of front page stories in the Weekly World News and National Enquirer: Shopping Cart Scanner Explodes, Mauls Family of Four. But I'll take those bastards on.

What store in its right mind would do this, Phutatorius? Who's gonna stick expensive electronic equipment on grocery carts that sit out in the rain and snow and get bashed around in the parking lot? A fair point: how about the scanner snaps onto the bars of the grocery cart? How about you pick one up at the door, and you return it on your way out? Huh? Huh? POW! You have questions — I've got answers.

What about bagging? you ask. Bag as you go, people. It's real easy, and I know you all can do it. Sing along with me now, to the tune of "Shortnin' Bread":

Scan and bag it as you go,
scan and bag,
take a number, talk to Deli Man,
scan and bag.

Scan-as-you-go is the wave of the future, Brothers and Sisters, and you read it first here at FO.

Iraqi Elections Ignored by Liberal Media

Iraq just held provincial elections and the liberal media won't say anything about how peaceful they were, how this is a big step forward to making the Iraqi government more representative, how much progress has been made in Iraq, and how happy people were to vote in free and fair elections! The fact that Iraq is an Arab country where woman can vote for their leaders is barely noted.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Who's Been Using My Work Computer?

I can say with absolute conviction that I did not click on the "Haggard Explains Sexual Orientation" and "'Mittens' the Cat Hits Slope on Sled" headlines on the home page.

And yet the links are greyed out as previously-viewed.

What the HELL is going on?


They're Going To Screw Up the Stimulus, Aren't They?

I'm going to throw a crazy idea out here right now, and I'd like you all to tell me if it sticks:

No one knows what must be done to save this economy, and the most dangerous people out there right now are the "opinion leaders" who believe that they do.
The conventional wisdom is that there needs to be an economic stimulus plan. This seems generally not a subject of serious controversy: Robert Reich tells us that "almost every economist will tell you the stimulus has to be massive." As with everything, there are skeptics out there, but rather than render myself completely paralyzed by epistemology, I'll buy into this premise.

But after walking hand-in-hand this first mile down the Road to Recovery — stimulus: oh yes, absolutely! — we confront the question:

What sort of stimulus?

and suddenly the consensus is dissolved, and everyone parts ways. We scatter all over the opinion landscape, and we start throwing rocks at one another — because this is what we do.

We need big, fat tax cuts right now, the Republicans are shouting, so that our businesses can snap out of their shock and get back to work.

No — it's about spending, respond the Democrats. The government has to channel the money into much-needed long-term investment.

Well, which is it? Is it both? Is it neither? Some combination of the two? If so, what's the magic recipe? How much in tax cuts? How much in spending? Nobody seems to agree, and all our livelihoods are hanging in the balance.

I wish I could say I trust one or the other party to do the right thing, but the circumstances pretty strongly suggest that I shouldn't. Why should we believe that the Republicans are thinking this through and arriving at their opinions on the merits, rather than on ideological orthodoxy and the principle of partisan opposition? It's just too convenient that their answer to this extraordinary question is the same as it is to every other question: more tax cuts, and what money the government does spend should go to defense contractors. And the GOP's sealed-up party-line vote in the House says more about opposition discipline in the caucus than it does about the merits of the bill. I'm suspicious that the Elephants in the Room voted as they did simply to serve notice to the President that they won't be pushovers.

As for the Democrats, they started with a number — an empty bucket, and they've been asked to fill it up, to the tune of $800+ billion. They've been decidedly uncreative with their recommendations, and one wonders if they're just recycling the party priorities that sat languishing during the Contract with America and Bush Administration years. Suddenly and somehow they've gone and rebranded the economic stimulus package — a term that suggests a jolt of adrenaline to the swooning patient — as a "recovery and reinvestment" plan. I don't feel like the Dems are keeping their eyes on the prize.

I'm not averse to tax cuts, and I generally think reinvestment — in research, infrastructure, defense — is a good idea. Far better than taxing the crap out of us and throwing the money into entitlement program holes. But this is an emergency bill. It's important, and I'd feel a lot better if (1) the folks on both sides weren't so confident that they have all the answers, and (2) the answers they're selling weren't so suspiciously consistent with party orthodoxy.

Partisan push-and-pull is all well and good, but what we need in the end is a bill that reflects each party's best ideas, not some watered-down compromise that gives every ideologue something to brag about to his/her constituency.

FO News Roundup: Jan. 30, 2009

We're broadcasting in stereo today. Sound test time, then — first off, some ick from the right:
  • If you weren't sure whether Rush Limbaugh has overthrown the Republican Party, consider this evidence of a House member kissing Rush's ring. Don't think you'll get off with just these words of sworn fealty, Representative Gingrey: as you're a medical doctor, your penitence will be measured out in painkiller prescriptions. (P)

  • Meanwhile, YouBetcha has quietly launched her own political action committee. With just one click of the Donate button now you can buy the Palin children matching pairs of Prada shoes. Could it be more fitting that SarahPAC's logo consists of a map of the United States with a giant, Alaska-shaped hole in it? (P)
And from the left:
  • Talk about the pot calling the kettle, uh, black. African foreign ministers want an investigation into possible Israeli human rights abuses during their war with Hamas. Never mind that a blind eye is turned to rampant abuses on their own continent (see Zimbabwe, Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Algeria, Guinea, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, [insert African country name], . . .). Ahhh, Israel. Where would the despots and hypocrites of the world be without you to point a finger at . . . (M)
That's a go for both channels.

The Fixed Income Trading Desk's Current Favorite Movie Quote

"I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills."

—Liam Neeson in Taken

One Song I Can't Believe They're Playing Unedited on the Radio

Britney Spears, If You Seek Amy.

The whole point of a double-entendre is that it has two meanings, one of them totally innocent, and the other one naughty. That means you can say something naughty but plausibly argue that your real meaning was the innocent one. But when you sing "All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy," it's really, really hard to argue that there's an innocent interpretation, because only the naughty interpretation makes any damn sense.

I don't understand why it was wrong for Howard Stern to say "fuck" on the air, but there's no problem with Brit singing "F-U-C-K me".

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ten Songs I'm Digging This Thursday Night

Just for the hell of it, and in order of importance:
(1) Joy Division: Atmosphere
(2) Patsy Cline: Walking After Midnight
(3) Stereolab: Jenny Ondioline
(4) Bob Dylan: Visions of Johanna
(5) The Boomtown Rats: I Don't Like Mondays
(6) Cracker: Take Me Down to the Infirmary
(7) M.I.A.: Paper Planes
(8) Stan Getz & João Gilberto: Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars) (w/ Astrud Gilberto)
(9) Lloyd Chalmers: Bang Bang Lulu
(10) The Futureheads: Carnival Kids

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

24: 6 Hours In

Our snazzy new "More/Hide" tag brings all sorts of advantages to the FO readership — not the least of which is our ability to discuss and dissect TV shows and movies, without "spoiling" them for the delinquents who haven't seen them yet. With that in mind, I find that we're 1/4 of the way through the 2009 iteration of that simultaneously most compelling and ridiculous of television serials, 24. Let's jump over to the other side of that "More" tag and talk through some of the developments:
*The FBI is a joke. A pack of mercenaries make off with one of their agents in a day-glo yellow van outside a listed safe house in the middle of the day, and the feds lose the trail. The Wife wants to know if, along with CTU, the government shut down all the satellite tracking equipment that was used to such great effect in the prior five seasons.

*If it's not well-known already that this show is produced by a right-wing nut job — Justice Scalia likes to consider 24 scenarios when he discusses U.S. torture policy — this much ought to be clear enough after the show spent three hours lecturing the audience about how important torture and abuse are as investigative tools. Compare the folks at the erstwhile CTU, who knocked heads and got results, with their counterparts at the FBI, who don't — and don't. And yet wouldn't it be an interesting plot twist if just once a roughed-up detainee gave Jack Bauer false information?

*As often as they bring him back into The Game, and as trite as it becomes with each repetition, my heart always leaps at the first sight of Tony Almeida. I think that's because the characters in this show are usually so godawful, and the turnover is so high from one season to the next. Tuning in at the beginning of a 24 season is like walking into your high school reunion. You look around desperately for someone you can stand: Chloe! Bill! Thank God you're here! You look — uh — terrific! What have you been up to? Running your own offline underground counter-terrorist ops! Wow, sounds heavy. I'm a lawyer now.

*It looks like the government not only shut down CTU and put Bill Buchanan out of work — they took his suit away and condemned him to wander the landscape in a black turtleneck right out of a Playbill headshot. This is why the agencies don't have Casual Fridays.

*Worst Ever Revelation of an Uninteresting Plot "Twist": Back at HQ, one federal analyst says to another, "I can't stop thinking about last night." That's classic 24 right there.

*What percentage of 24's viewership knows that Sangala is not actually a country in Africa? I put the over-under at 35, and my money has a certain gubernatorial firecracker in Alaska on the wrong side of the dividing line. Cracks me up that they're always going out of their way to serve up these fictional enemy nations — we won't associate our Arab/African terrorists with a particular nation-state, because we don't want to offend anyone — then they have the Chinese swoop down out of nowhere to kidnap Jack. You know, because the Chinese have such a sense of humor about these things.

*What do you say to a woman who confronts you after you put a sleeper hold on her in her office, left her unconscious, and then, after she woke up and tracked you down, you marched her out to a ditch and staged her execution-style killing, grazing a bullet off her neck, then threw a plastic tarp over her head and buried her alive? This was a great dramatic moment, and I don't think the writers took full advantage of it. My choice for an ice-breaker here: "Altoid?" That's a product placement opportunity, too.

Updike at Rest

John Updike died today. Google the name for more details than I care to provide here. I haven't read all or most of his stuff. OK, the only novel I've read is Rabbit Run, his brilliant story — cutting-edge risqué at the time — about the horror of being stuck in an unhappy marriage when your true passion lies elsewhere.

But if you haven't read his 1960 article about Ted Williams' last at-bat, then don't call yourself a baseball fan. If you don't understand why people love baseball, then read the article. Updike writes better than anyone ever has about the atmosphere at Fenway, how baseball is different, and why Ted Williams was one of a kind.
At age 14 I was waiting for a plane to Nova Scotia when I saw the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived sitting by himself. He was on his way up to Canada to go fishing (of course), and I chatted with him for a few minutes. I've relocated 13 times since college and almost nothing has survived from before the first move. But this autograph and crappy picture taken from my Kodak Disc camera are in it for the long-haul.
David Halberstam wins the prize for best Williams quote ever, about Ted's envy of the first African-American player in the American League, expressed loudly in the main dining hall of the Ritz-Carlton in Boston: "I wish I could have had Larry Doby's cock!" But there's no better explanation of why the above documents are priceless than Updike's article.

One day Phutatorius may write a similar article of equal caliber. That is, if any player of distinction ever finishes his career with the Cleveland Indians.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mighty Fine Only Got You Somewhere Half the Time

One reason it's so fun to write about Caroline Kennedy has to be the wealth of "Caroline" songs out there for quoting.  I went Beach Boys in my post; Redneck served up Neil Diamond.  Not so long ago M'dates wrote to tout some soundtracks he'd bought on vinyl: "Pretty in Pink" could have been in play.

Hard to believe none of us hit on OutKast. What do you want to bet "Roses" has had its fair share of airplay around the New York Governor's mansion?

The Dukes of Hazzard

It's been pointed out to me that given the speed at which electromagnetic radiation travels, approximately 150 stars in the universe have now received television broadcasts of The Dukes of Hazzard.

It's interesting to think that if space aliens ever show up here, they might arrive in orange flying saucers with the doors welded shut. But do Beta Centaurians look good in Daisy Dukes?

Winter of My Discontent

Know what's disheartening?

What's disheartening, Brothers and Sisters, is having to go home tonight and spend an hour spreading The Last Three Weeks' Snow onto our yard from the six-foot-high snowbank along the driveway — so we can make room for The Snow That's Coming Tomorrow.

You know, if The Economy is going to swallow itself whole, you'd think I'd at least have the pleasure of hiring a couple of these Lehman Brothers jerks to do the shoveling:

"Hey, Moneybags — you missed a spot. Yeah, that's right. I wanna see black top, or you don't get your five bucks."

But no, I don't even get that.

FO News Roundup: January 27, 2009

  • So the pill-popping radio fat man himself didn't like that Obama told GOP representatives, "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done." Rush responded that the Big O is clearly more frightened of him than of Mitch McConnell or John Boehner, "which doesn't say much about our party." No, Rush, it doesn't.

  • More...
  • Blago skipped his own impeachment trial to make his case to The View. The guy screams guilty when he evades BabaWawa's point blank questions about selling Obama's vacant seat. Apparently he thought about giving the seat to Oprah, but instead we got Roland Burris. Oprah! How fun would that be? The guy may be a crook like our last governor, who's serving time in a federal pen, but any guy that can out-ridiculous the Donald when it comes to haircuts can run my state any day.

  • How come when I use Turbotax I overpay by two grand, but when Tim Geithner does he saves himself 34 grand and gets confirmed anyway? Seriously, though, good news. Good to see that non-issues aren't getting in the way (at least so far). Remember when Attorney General candidates were derailed for not paying nanny taxes and as a result we had to look at Janet Reno for four years? Glad those days are over. Still having trouble sleeping.

Monday, January 26, 2009

India VII: Odds and End

So I've been back in the First World for a month now, which means the statute of limitations on travel-blogging runs out at midnight. I leave you with these highlights and lowlights.

On an overnight train December 15 from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, I shared a cabin with an air force lieutenant. He said they weren't on alert anymore (they were for two weeks after the Mumbai attacks), which meant it was safe to hop on camels and head off into the Thar desert on the Pakistani border.

We rode on camels until we were sore and camped on the dunes out of sight of any other tourists, locals, or any other life form. Do this. It's kitschy, it's touristy, but it's FUN! We cooked curried vegetables over a campfire, drank Kingfishers, watched the sunset over the dunes, and slept out on the sand. We sang "Hotel California" and "Country Road" by the campfire. Our camel-driving crew nicknamed me Michael Jackson (because of my range and skin color?).

Oh, and just for the record, there are lots of filthy animals in India, but camels may be the filthiest. They swallow big chunks of shrubbery, then chew it, then swallow it again. This process gets repeated several times. Get the picture? Yum! The list of things I'd rather do than make out with my camel is very, very long.

The caste system may not be as formal as it used to be, but there's a clear distinction between upper and lower class. When I first flew into Mumbai eleven years ago, I traveled in style — first class on Air India (I don't miss my old job - hell no — but I do miss other people paying for things). I was kind of tired when the plane landed and took my time, but the flight attendants were in a panic trying to get me off the plane. You see, under no circumstances could the first-class passengers be allowed to mix with the rest, and so everyone else on the plane had to wait for me, no matter how long it took.

Things hadn't changed this time around, even though I've got one tenth the budget. I'm traveling on my own at this point and at one hotel it's just me in the dining room. Let's just say it's a bit awkward having two servants stand at attention watching me slop curry all over my face, watching so closely that they can remove it the instant I'm done. But this was less uncomfortable than the time eleven years ago when the locker room servant tried to help my boss off with his pants in the hotel gym. Really sir, let me help. True story.

But the employees don't just serve the guests. As far as I can tell they are virtual slaves to their employers, bringing them drinks, working around the clock, sleeping on fetid cots in the basement between shifts. One guy had to massage the temples of the fat shirtless hotel owner at the place I stayed in Jodhpur. Looked like an unpleasant task.

Ahmedabad, Gujarat is the worst place on Earth. There's no need to ever go there. Mt. Abu is the chillest place in Rajasthan. Go there when you need a break from the sweltering, polluted, overcrowded cities. Udaipur is mellow and the lake isn't as nice as it looks in Octopussy, but certainly a nice place to hang out. Jaisalmer is fun, Jodhpur is a polluted, overcrowded city, but the old town (right) is nice and the fort (left) makes it worth the trip. One local kid I passed strolling through the streets at night declared me the tallest man in Jodhpur.

Christmas Eve I had dinner at the Taj Palace in Mumbai. A month after the attacks the place was open for business and packed with tourists, including your fair share of Americans, Brits, and Jews (all allegedly targets in the attacks). So choke on that, you terrorist fuckwads!

There's no place like it on Earth. I'm dying to see it in ten years. Will the economy keep growing like it is? As the middle class gets bigger and richer will they feel compelled to develop some sort of welfare system for the hundreds of millions of wretched poor? Will they keep on having giant families and overtake China in population? I have no frickin' idea. But I'm sure I'll want to check back in on things again. For now, good-bye, India . . .

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Do Subscribers Have Free Speech Rights Against Facebook?

A few posts ago I wrote that "there is no free speech issue" when Facebook — which is not a government actor — censors the expression of its users. I may have spoken too fast. What I wrote is generally true, but you see, Facebook — like most serious-minded dotcoms — is based in California. And California is the home of the famous/infamous (pick a side) Pruneyard decision.

If you surveyed a crowd, and you asked each respondent to tell you what's special and unique about California, I don't doubt you'd get all sorts of answers. If someone in that crowd were a lawyer, and that lawyer were very much a dork, he might mention Robins v. Pruneyard Shopping Center, a 1979 decision of the California Supreme Court.
In Pruneyard, student activists sued the Pruneyard Shopping Center, a 21-acre privately-owned shopping mall, after mall security guards kicked them out for violating Pruneyard's rules against leafleting and petitioning on its premises. The California Supreme Court held that the students had a limited state — not federal — constitutional right to engage in political speech on Pruneyard's property. And it went on to write that Pruneyard violated that free speech right.

Driving the Court's thinking was its concern that traditional public market spaces — the old "Main Streets" downtown — were giving way to privately-owned shopping centers. The justices thought that the speech rights California citizens enjoyed in these Main Street spaces would lose quite a bit of their heft if a town's center of gravity shifted to a mall and the mall's ownership were able to restrict speech on mall property.

The Pruneyard decision was controversial at the time (it went up to the Supreme Court); it's controversial now (some California Supreme Court justices want to overrule it); and not a single state has followed California's lead on this issue. Despite all this, it remains the law in California that although most private property owners can invite and exclude whomever they please, the select few who manage vast, populated public spaces — like shopping malls — may not infringe the free speech rights of the visiting public, unless that speech would "interfere with normal business operations."

Enter Facebook. Facebook isn't a mall: the space at issue here isn't "physical" — it's comprised of cyberspace (or server space, depending on your point of view). But that space provides a public forum for more than 150 million subscribers. Contrast Pruneyard Shopping Center, with its piddling 25,000-per-day foot traffic. The space Facebook has created is commercial space, to be sure, but what Facebook is selling in that space is a communications service. That is, it hasn't just invited its millions of users to Facebook to shop, like Pruneyard did; we're summoned to Facebook to communicate with one another. The rationales under California law for extended free speech protection to Facebook's subscribers are arguably even stronger than those discussed in Pruneyard.

I leave it to the commenters to discuss whether or not it makes for good policy, but legally it seems a no-brainer that the Pruneyard principle applies to any well-trafficked online forum that (1) cultivates user-generated content and (2) is based in California. That doesn't mean Burger King gets to mount a core attack on Facebook's business model: under Pruneyard Facebook doesn't have to tolerate users who disrupt "normal business operations. But if Facebook continues down its current censorious path, it could find itself in California state court — and it could lose.

Q & A: Don't Cry for Me, Colonel Sanders

Q. Why are fried chicken tenders always shaped like Argentina?

A. Turns out there's no under-the-table arrangement between the Argentinian Tourist Board and the food wholesalers who cut and cobble together chicken strips for chain restaurants. There's actually (see Fig. 8) a "chicken tender" part of the chicken — detachable from the breast — and that tender just so happens to be similar in shape to the Tango Nation.

So there you go.

Married Hispanic Male?

This Post article is just good clean fun. Is it baseball season yet?
In an explosive new book called "The Yankee Years," Torre gets most personal in his attacks against Alex Rodriguez, who he says was called "A-Fraud" by his teammates after he developed a "Single White Female"-like obsession with team captain Derek Jeter . . .
Might have to buy a copy.

The Boringness of the Long Distance Runner

I've never understood why people watch long distance running events. It's not like tennis — I don't like watching tennis myself, but I understand why other people might. With long distance running, I just don't see how a spectator can remain attentive. 

First of all, there's nothing inherently interesting about the act of running — it's a basic, simple, human act. This isn't ballet or gymnastics, you just put one foot in front of the other and repeat. 

Second, the strategic element is completely impenetrable to spectators. With tennis, for example, you can tell when Federer has decided he's going to aggressively rush the net, because he'll keep aggressively rushing the net. With football, you can see right away when the defense is playing bump and run, or blitzing. But with running, how do you know if the guy who's hanging back is conserving energy, or if he's merely slow? How do you know if the guy at the front is pushing the pace, or just feeling frisky today? You have no idea. Absent any strategic element, all there is to focus on is the physical element, and that doesn't hold my attention. Heck, I myself run five miles a couple of times a week — if you don't find that fascinating, I think you get my point.

I'm not trying to put down runners, I'm always impressed with people with talent who dedicate themselves to being the best they can be. And (as I noted) I run a modest amount myself. Nor am I trying to put down people who enjoy watching running — if that's your thing, that's great. I'm just trying to say that I don't understand it. 

I've focused this post on long distance running, because the events like the 100m are all over so quickly that it's hard to be bored. But who can actually watch the New York Marathon, or the Olympic 10,000 meters? If you can, I'd love to hear what I'm missing.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


A recent Slate article documents attempts by mathematicians to solve the problem of Gerrymandering. There are jokes about circles not tessellating well and talk of algorithms to measure compactness, competitiveness, fairness, county integrity . . . the list goes on. And, in my humble opinion, every single one of the yahoos involved misses the point.

As you no doubt recall, we tackled the issue several weeks ago, but the so-called experts haven't learned a thing. The problem isn't that these guys aren't good at math, it's that they've sacrificed what should be the one overarching goal of a redistricting scheme in favor of algorithmic showboating and myriad minor (and/or dubious) goals.
Let's be clear about that one primary goal. Currently some political party in power can Gerrymander the districts to favor their party — e.g., lump all the Republicans in one district and get small Democratic majorities in the others. We want to prevent this from happening. Period. The following other goals are comparatively inconsequential:
  • The idea of compactness is simple. Try to make the districts so that the people in it are as close to the center as possible. Back in the day this was hugely important. No one wanted to travel too far by mule to go hear some blowhards debate about taxes and tariffs and so there was some merit in making the district look more like a circle than a square. But now this is a nice-to-have provided we don't do anything too bizarre. Internet advertising and organizing have made compactness even less relevant.
  • Competitiveness and fairness are dubious goals. If it happens naturally that one party does better than its proportion of registered voters in the state suggests it should, well good for them. Let's not go out of our way to impose some sort of penalty on popular representatives. And all the fairness proposals have to do with making sure the Democrats and Republicans are evenly dispersed. We want to prevent the parties from making things uneven on purpose, but it's debatable if we want to codify the importance of these two parties in particular by mandating their proportions in congressional districts.
  • The idea behind county integrity is to match the districts as closely as possible to county line. Really? Who gives a shit? Does anyone even care what county they're in anymore? We shouldn't give one iota of thought to this absurd metric.
The metrics are wrong; but so is the general approach. One of the ideas is to let someone propose a redistricting scheme and then evaluate how "Gerrymandered" it is based on their scoring system. But the party in charge will no doubt still find some way to manipulate the districts in their favor and get a high "score" under the new fancy algorithm — but this time they'll have the cover of a good score. And all that these other metrics accomplish is to make any scheme and evaluation method more complex and therefore less transparent.

Far better to generate the districts according to an objective procedure. We can easily secure our primary goal with a simple, transparent scheme that can't be manipulated by the party in power.

If those involved were more interested in solving the problem and less concerned with showing off their algorithmic creativity, they'd adopt a system that was simpler, not more complicated. But no one likes the simple answer. It's harder to show off how smart you are with a simple answer.

Besides, Mithriblocks are compact enough and tessellate as well as anything. Of course, it doesn't really matter in the end. Those in power don't want the problem solved. They're better off adopting a fancy algorithm that they can manipulate, even if we're not . . .

Our New Era of Reason and Science

Now that my beloved Bible-thumping right-wingers are gone from Washington, our new post-partisan leaders are ushering in an era where reason and science will triumph over unprovable superstition. So can one of you libs please send this guy the memo?

Friday, January 23, 2009


The White House press corps is on Obama's case already, as they weren't offered full video coverage of the President's do-over swear-in inside the Oval Office:

“It is ironic, the same day that the president is talking about transparency, we were not let in,” CNN’s Ed Henry said on the air Wednesday night after news of the second swearing-in broke.

Substitute "unrelated" for "ironic," and you have a true and accurate statement.
Now this isn't the case we see five times a day, where "ironic" isn't the right word, because the speaker doesn't know what "ironic" means. This is a case where "ironic" isn't the right word, because the speaker doesn't know what "transparency" means.

By invoking the word "transparency," President Obama means to differentiate himself from the Bush Administration's policies and practice of secret government and information warfare. Transparency in government is a social value — a democratic value — and the role of the press in ensuring it is critical. So yes, Mr. Henry, you're really important. You have a privileged status in American society.

But transparency wasn't at issue here, because the White House did invite a number of print reporters into the Oval Office to view and document the event. Let's be clear: nothing about the re-swear-in was kept from the public. It's just that Ed Henry and his counterparts in cable news didn't get the video footage they wanted. Boo hoo.

This is not to say that, to date, Obama and his people have always been open and forthright with the press and the American people. They might have front-loaded the information about Tim Geithner's tax liabilities; instead, they waited for the news media to dig it up. This would describe a failure to live up to the "transparency" value: We know something that might be material and you don't. But we're not going to tell you.

It says something about the state of the profession that "we wanted to get footage of that" is greater cause for complaint from the media than "you withheld that information from us." I'm fine with the media zealously defending the principle of press access: I'd just like the underlying rationale to be service of the people, and not simply an assertion of Big Media privilege.

Poe Turns 200

NPR's On Point gave notice earlier today that Edgar Allan Poe turned 200 on Monday.

If you're like your correspondent Phutatorius, and you were convinced the radical teachers at the "Montresor-y" school down the road were bricking children into walls — well, you can pin all that unwarranted angst on Our Man Poe. All that time I lost picketing outside the building, calling Social Services, when it turns out it was all an honest, homophonic mistake.

Anyway, I linked to "The Cask of Amontillado" because it's his best. You can argue for or against that point in the comments.

You're absolutely right on this one. "Cask of Amontillado" is the best of the bunch, for the opening line alone:

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."
Genius. And "The Pit" ends brilliantly. After avoiding the pit in the darkness and harnessing rats to free him from the pendulum, our hero screams as he is about to be forced into the bottomless void:

"There was a discordant hum of human voices! There was a loud blast as of many trumpets! There was a harsh grating as of a thousand thunders! The fiery walls rushed back! An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell fainting into the abyss. It was that of General Lasalle. The French army had entered Toledo. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies."
OK, a little suspension of disbelief is required to imagine a triumphant French army. But the guy could start and the guy could finish. He's the Dennis Eckersley of American Lit.

But for those who'd rather be read to:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Overheard on the Trading Floor

"I told you the Obama presidency was going to be a disaster, he's been in office for a day and now even the terrorists in Guantanamo are homeless."

"McCain's Daughter Digs Michelle's Dress"

An utterly irrelevant headline, I know, but if you're interested in wearing it on a T-shirt, CNN can help.

Not quite what I'm after — although I might have plunked down for some "Meghan McCain Digs Stereolab" merch back during the campaign.

As it is, I think I'll save my money for when Wolf Blitzer et al. announce the winner of American Idol.

How About Me?

Bloomberg writes: "Apple Disclosures About Jobs Said To Face SEC Review"

Oh, wow — did I see this coming, or what?

That's right, Brothers and Sisters: get your news here at Feigned Outrage before it happens!

Some Thoughts on Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

WARNING: If you're not into lengthy dissertations on early '80s British electropop bands, STOP reading this post RIGHT NOW.

We take requests here at Feigned Outrage. We do it because it makes it all the more likely someone outside of the three of us is going to read a post. And — pow! — if a reader is actually going to request a post from the Some Thoughts On . . . Department, I have to deliver. And so, some thoughts on Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
First off: The Hardest Band Name To Type. Just brutal. Had to get that off my chest. Thank God for the acronym. On to substance:

OMD is the first band I ever really obsessed over. And putting aside the sundry Neil Diamond and Air Supply concerts I went to with my family, OMD is the first band I ever saw perform live. Depeche Mode was a close second, taking the stage just ninety minutes after OMD did, at the onetime Blossom Music Theater in Akron, Ohio, back in 1988. My Rock Snob destiny was foretold at this early age: this was my first concert, and my motivation in going was to see the opening act.

For my purposes here, I’m going to cover just a subset of the Manoeuvres’ oeuvre — the recordings from 1980’s self-titled debut through The Pacific Age, cuts from which era were selected for their 1988 Best of OMD compilation, which along with DM’s Speak & Spell were the first two albums I bought on compact disc. (Lots of firsts here for Phutatorius.)

This puts seven terrific albums in play, and when I think of them, my working thesis has to be that OMD’s gig (and probably its weakness, from a commercial standpoint) was its ability to swing wildly between extremes of avant-garde experimentalism and McCartney-esque pop artistry — and, at times, to strike a perfect balance between the two. It’s a bit of a short cut (though a useful one) to say the avant-garde came early and the pop songs came late, because early cuts were catchy (“Enola Gay,” “Telegraph”) and late-issue tracks downright weird (“Crush,” “The Dead Girls”). I tend to favor the albums in the middle — Architecture & Morality, Dazzle Ships, and Junk Culture, because their sound was more robust than on the pingy and minimalist earlier albums, and the later albums were inconsistent and at times just plain cheeseball.

(I’ll pause over Crush for a moment for nostalgia’s sake, and over The Pacific Age for the transcendent album cover (above) — rendered more than a few times in blue ink over pencil on my cut-from-grocery-bag textbook covers in 8th and 9th grade.)

Consider Dazzle Ships Track 2: “Genetic Engineering.” What was going on there? A typewriter sets the beat, leading in to a send-up of an ad jingle, two men and a woman, alternating touts: “Efficient — logical — effective — and practical! Using — our resources — to the best of — our ability!” This was Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” fourteen years earlier. Then came guitars — a rarity for Messrs. McCluskey and Humphrey (though not the first time we’d heard them: they’d sprung guitars on us in “The New Stone Age” — A&M’s stunning opening track, which carried every bit as much menace and unease as something Nine Inch Nails might have recorded at their peak. But I'm digressing.). Then a Speak & Spell steps in to counter the upbeat promo voices. Baby! Mother! Hospital! Scissors! Creature! Judgment! Butcher! Engineer!

By now the whole Speak & Spell business might seem stale: sort of like The Road Warrior’s aesthetic. You have to take six pills and forget the hundred awful knock-offs that followed, so you can remember how groundbreaking the original was. So it is here: an evocative, impressionistic sequence of these eight select words, and now we can hear marching footsteps. Boots. Hints of creeping fascism, clearly, and only now the first verse. There’s a brilliant, catchy pop song to follow over the next three minutes. Genius. The sentiment was a bit overwrought, but the song was genius.

OMD did so much of this, and I'm sorely tempted to go on at length. There’s the song suite about Joan of Arc on A&M. Why? Don’t ask; don’t question McCluskey’s earnest vocals. What the hell is “ABC Auto-Industry,” and why is it so beautiful? Ditto “Romance of the Telescope” — what are these people talking about? And just when you think you might be overmatched by the arcane subject matter, the music's layered complexity, the synthesized choral tracks, the audio samples (done before it was cool) — just then they serve up something simple and sublime like “She’s Leaving” or “Never Turn Away,” the latter of which screamed for inclusion in the final boy-gets-girl scene of some John Hughes movie. Never mind “If You Leave,” the song that made these guys briefly famous. The quintessential ’80s teen movie song is “Never Turn Away,” whether or not it ever landed on a soundtrack.

I could go on about this band’s early cramped, Continental, Cold War aesthetic, and how, while their punk/post-punk contemporaries continued to serve up the same humdrum images of fallen empire and urban decay, OMD’s recordings were evocative in such a distinct and interesting way. You played the albums and you thought of trench warfare, legacy telecommunications, radar blips, battleships, abstract art (contrast punk’s Dadaism), cathedrals, Catholic martyrdom, and BBC news. I could go on about spending an entire summer vacation playing and re-playing “Love and Violence” in my car, and only letting up occasionally on the rewind button, when I realized the next track, “Hard Day,” was just as good. Talking up these two songs could lead me into a hundred or more words about McCluskey’s extraordinary voice (never mind Humphreys’s clunker of a larynx). But I’m self-editing now, so this is all you get.

That all this should have culminated in the godawful video for “(Forever) Live and Die” — there will be no embed here — and the hamhanded digressions about the U.S. civil rights movement (I’m thinking Crush’s “88 Seconds in Greenboro,” “Southern” on The Pacific Age), is I think, cause for some regret. And remember: I’ve ruled the last three albums out of this analysis completely. All this notwithstanding, let’s give OMD their props. I don’t think there was a better band going between 1981 and 1983; if there was, it was Bow Wow Wow, and it’s not fair to compare humans to superhumans.

"Hotels Trim Amenities Amid Recession"

The WSJ has a nice article this morning about how struggling hotels are cutting back on frills because of the economy. It begins, "The Courtyard and other Marriott chains recently stopped putting hand lotion in their rooms, leaving guests to ask for it at the front desk."

So who feels comfortable stopping by the front desk and saying "Excuse me, I couldn't help but notice there's no hand lotion in my room, can you have the bellhop run some by?" I mean, why don't you just ask them to deliver a whole, raw, plucked chicken and the November issue of Juggs while you're at it, since they're going to assume you're a pervert anyway? Jiminy.

Lost Evening


My name is Mithridates and I'm a Lostaholic.

OK, so I'm not alone. Lots of people watch this mind-numbing show. The thing is though, I think many of them actually like it. I don't. I think it's dreadful. It reaches in through my eye socket, sticks its tentacles through my auditory canal, and sucks the joy right out of my body.

My own brother got me hooked. Hey, man, I've got the first season on DVD. Watch it for free.
And that first season was pretty damn good and filled your mind with unanswered questions. What was that polar bear doing on Oahu? How did so many hot people get on one plane? How could they sleep on the beach, hike through the jungle, get shot at it, tied up, beaten, and tortured for months and not have their clothes turn to tattered rags? How many seat-belt extenders did Hurley have? How many different flashback scenes can you have in which the heroine gets in with a bad guy and almost gets caught by the authorities and flees town just in time?

But that's it. Season Two was all right. Season Three I actually paid to see on iTunes, but couldn't stomach more than a few episodes. And then I gave it up for good.

I've been free and clear now for six months.

Oh, but then I saw a bit of an episode of season four and went on a binge. I finished my iTunes season three and got caught up on season four on the ABC website which makes you click to end the commercial every ten minutes. You can't even fall asleep and pretend you've seen it. It MAKES you watch EVERY painful minute. I would much rather be in the hatch sitting in the chair, punching in the code every 108 minutes than watching someone else do the same.

But Penny, I've got to sail around the world to get my honor back to prove to your father that I can do it? What? No. Why? Stupid.

And so tonight I watched the self-congratulatory one-hour recap followed by the two-hour season premiere, in which yet another group of unidentified hostiles attacks our heroes for trespassing on their island. One day I'll be on my deathbed begging for those three hours back.

So that's it. No more Lost for me. Cold turkey. Have faith you say, this season's supposed to be really good. But I've watched enough bad episodes to reason that this is highly unlikely, and after all, I'm a Man of Science, not a Man of Faith.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Phutatorius's recent post on Facebook has shamed me into signing up, after years of avoiding it. That, and the fact that my wife signed up last night, after years of avoiding it.

Assuming my wife accepts the invitation, I will have one Facebook friend. It really is amazing how they've managed to duplicate reality on the internet!

Good Times Never Seemed So Good

CNN reports that Caroline Kennedy is withdrawing her name from consideration for New York's vacant senate seat, because of her concern about Ted Kennedy's poor health.

I would like to announce that I am withdrawing my name from consideration for the Baltimore Orioles starting rotation, because of my concern about Ted Kennedy's poor health.

If you want to criticize either of us, the worst thing you can say is that we care too much about Uncle Ted.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Facebook Fascists Blitz the King

First, Nipplegate. Now this: Facebook pressures Burger King to shut down its "sacrifice ten friends for a free Whopper" promotion app. Dunno which is worse — that Facebook's oligarchs are foisting a John Ashcroft sensibility about areolas as a community norm, or that they're now regulating speech on their servers to protect their own self-interest.
Spokespersons for both companies quickly went to work to spin the awkward, rat-smelling resolution to this controversy. Burger King's went on about what a "great sport" Facebook was about the promotion, before explaining that it had "decided to conclude the [friends-for-Whoppers] campaign." Facebook's mike-monger went positively Orwellian:
We encourage creativity from developers and companies using Facebook Platform, but we also must ensure that applications meet users' expectations.

Uh, speaking of Whoppers — wha? Just how did Burger King's app fail the expectations of users? The King offered a coupon for a free Whopper for every ten deleted friends. As I understand it, that's exactly what His Flame-Broiling Majesty delivered.

Let's be clear what happened here. Facebook didn't like the Burger King campaign, because the "network effect" principle says that Facebook makes more money if Facebook users have more friends. Facebook regarded a friends-for-Whoppers trade as an existential (if ultimately not very serious) threat to its business model, it threatened to kick Burger King off Facebook, and BK caved.

The logical extreme of this policy, of course, is that Facebook ultimately requires a satisfactory explanation from any user before he/she can delete a friend.

I suppose this is the price we all pay when we sign up for our free accounts: we play by Facebook's rules. There's no "free speech" issue here per se, as these are Facebook's servers, and they can host whomever they choose and impose whatever conditions they want. But neither can it be said that we're all privileged beneficiaries of Facebook's programming and hosting largesse — sure, we get to "throw squids" at each other and take "personality tests" that match us up with pop stars, but in exchange they're compiling a gigantic database chock full of our personal information to review, parse, dissect, and sell to advertisers for tons of money.

So maybe it's not too much to ask for just the slightest of revisions to our "social contract" with these guys: e.g., how's about when somebody like BK comes up with something brilliant and funny, you tip your hat to them and let 'em get on with their business, even if the joke's just a little bit on you? In consideration of this promise, we'll agree not to call you a bunch of soulless profiteering assheads.

India VI: Slumdogs

There was nothing the most beautiful woman I've ever seen (no exaggeration) wanted to do more Saturday night than see Slumdog Millionaire with me. In case you haven't noticed — and judging by the page views you haven't — I've just recently returned from a trip to India, including a few days in Mumbai where the movie takes place. Well, I was dying to see it with her, too. It's been out for a couple of months, but the Golden Globes have rekindled interest and the theater was packed. And rightly so. It's a great movie. Go see it.

Sometimes the wretchedness depicted in a movie doesn't seem plausible. People couldn't be that poor, that miserable, that abused. The police couldn't be that corrupt and uncaring. Life couldn't be that unfair. Was this movie a fair and accurate description of real life in India? I can't say for sure. I was only there for a short while and almost certainly didn't see the worst. But based on what I did see it was certainly a plausible one.
In the movie: A small boy jumps into a pile of human waste and pushes through a crowd to get his favorite movie star's autograph.

What I saw: Shit everywhere. Of every kind. Kids running through the streets barefoot, getting it all over them. People squatting on the side of the road — sorry, ain't no anti-bacterial hand soap and running hot water nearby to wash those hands — make sure you eat with your left . . . Slums so vast and crowded that there's no way any sort of proper sewage could possibly do the job. Huts in the countryside literally made of cow-shit.

OK, so I didn't see anyone actually covered head to foot in excrement, but other than that . . .

In the movie: A gangster enslaves orphans, trains them to sing, and blinds them. Why blind them? So that when they spend the rest of their childhood (who knows what happens after) singing on a corner for handouts they'll get more sympathy from passers-by, and therefore more money for their masters.

What I saw: Beggars with mutilated feet and children on the sidewalk holding deformed babies. Eleven years ago after visiting the Taj Mahal, our guide took us to a shop where you could buy jewelry boxes and stuff like that made of marble and inlaid stone reminiscent of the Taj. We got a tour of the factory where the owner pointed to a handful of boys sitting against the wall putting tiny pieces of stone decorations into the marble. He told us they'd work here like this until they were in their teens at which time their fingers would no longer be delicate enough to handle the intricate work. Child labor for sure. Forced child labor? Sure looked like it. And what happens after?

OK, so I never witnessed anything quite as horrifying as in the movie, but is it out there? People seem to think so . . .

In the movie: Slum children playing cricket (or some game with a ball and a stick) on the airport runway, dodging planes and being chased by police.

What I saw: During the descent into the domestic airport in Mumbai you fly very low over what seems like an endless stretch of tin shacks — until all of a sudden you're right over the runway. The shacks literally press right up against the airport fence.

OK, so our plane didn't actually run over any kids, but the runway was certainly the biggest playing field around.

But I'm making the movie — and the country for that matter — sound terribly depressing. Sure, it is at times, but it's got an exciting plot, with some brilliant performances from the young actors and a pretty compelling love story. This guy's in love with this girl, she clearly wants to be with him, but she's with someone else and not nearly as happy as she'd be with him. Sounds like a million other Hollywood stories, but in this one I find myself really rooting for the guy. It also helps that she's stunningly beautiful. I can't tell you here how it ends . . .

India is an amazing place and has much to offer. Its economy is growing fast and it's made remarkable progress. A century ago, historian Sir Martin Gilbert estimates that about half a million people a year died of the plague — it's certainly come a long way from that, although Usha and Zubin Ronowat might dispute how far it's really progressed. It's a dynamic place and the streets feel more alive than anywhere I've been. But still, to me, the single most defining aspects of India are the overpowering smell and the vast, crushing, unparalleled poverty that affects hundreds of millions in the city slums and countryside. You get used to the smell after a couple of days. You really do. I think your nose just gets tired. But you never quite get used to the poverty . . .

"Unwarranted," Part II: Journal Back at It Today

It would be petty, on a day this mo[nu]mentous, to take on the nuance-proof editorial board at the Wall Street Journal. And petty I am. So here goes:
Building on last week's endeavor to misread the import of a judicial decision to defend Bush's secret program of warrantless wiretapping, the Journal runs an editorial today about Att'y General nominee Eric Holder's position on the question, quoting a confirmation hearing exchange between Holder and Senator Orrin Hatch:
Mr. HATCH: "Back to my prior point, the President's inherent authority under the Constitution. Can that be limited by a statute? You're relying on a statute as though that's binding on Article II of the Constitution."

Mr. HOLDER: "Well, the President obviously has powers under the Constitution that cannot be infringed by the legislative branch. That's what I was saying earlier. There are powers that the President has delegated to him — that he has — and Congress does not have the ability to say, with regard to those powers, you cannot exercise them. There's always a tension in trying to decide where that balance is struck. And I think we see the best result when we see Congress interacting with the President, the executive branch interacting with the legislative branch and coming up with solutions . . ."

Mr. HATCH: "That still doesn't negate the fact that the President may have inherent powers under Article II that even a statute cannot vary."

Mr. HOLDER: "Sure."

From here the editorial jumps to its logically untenable "Gotcha!" conclusion:
So let's see. Mr. Holder now concedes that Presidents have inherent powers that even a statute can't abridge, notwithstanding his campaign speeches. . . . [H]is concession is further evidence that the liberal accusations about "breaking the law" and "illegal wiretaps" of the last several years were mostly about naked partisanship. Mr. Holder's objection turns out to be merely the tactical political one that the Bush Administration would have been better off negotiating with Congress for wiretap approval, not that it was breaking the law. Now he tells us.

Uh, no, Journal. No — you're wrong, because Eric Holder did not tell you that. Nothing Holder said about the Article II war powers generally (to wit, that they exist) is inconsistent with his position on whether bulk warrantless wiretapping in secret is one of them (to wit, that it's not).

At this point, it's just laughable. At least last week the Journal did the good journalist's work of obfuscating the truth, by conveniently leaving out any discussion of what the FISA review court decision actually held. Here they quote an actual transcript, then — with the evidence right there in the column — try to make triumphal hay on a premise that Holder said something different.

La Boheme - It's an Opera

I can't remember who said "Anything too stupid to be said is sung," but it might be relevant to a discussion of opera. I believe the second half of that quote is "And anything too stupid to be sung is put in a poem," and we ought to have a separate discussion about whether poetry is indeed stupider than opera.

That having been said, I'm a fan of opera in general — I've had Der Rosenkavalier on in the background this weekend — although I really can't get my head around modern operatic stagings. If you really pressed me on it, no, I don't suppose I could give you a good reason why Carmen shouldn't be staged in an underwater city of the future, and I couldn't articulate why it feels wrong to have The Marriage of Figaro set in an S&M-style dungeon. Nevertheless, those things feel wrong to me, and it's annoying to spend the first two acts sitting there wondering "WTF?" and missing the music.

I'm told there's some European opera magazine that runs a regular feature where they show you a photo of a set and you have to guess what the opera is. The rigging of a pirate ship? Must be Nabucco!

But it's jackassery along those lines that keeps me from going to more operas in the flesh. Much less stressful to listen to it at home, and you get the fun of shopping for 45s at indie record shops, too!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Rock Me, Amadeus!

I went back to Dave's Records yesterday for the third time this month. OK, I may have a slight addiction. Fair enough. But yesterday I raided the Classical/Opera section and am now listening to an almost scratch-free seven-dollar double record of The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Tutto è gioia, no? Well, no. You see, this Eastern Despot didn't read the fine print — or actually the big, bold print right on the cover. What I'm listening to right now is a bunch of fat sopranos, accompanied by the music and singing to the tune of Die Zauberflöte — but IN ENGLISH!

With all due respect to the geniuses at The Metropolitan Opera Club, there are reasons we want to listen to this exquisite music in its original Deutsch. And it's not just snobbishness. Snobbishness is why I don't like the supertitles at the Met. I like being slightly less in the dark than the bridge-and-tunnel crowd (welcome again, Whitecollar Redneck).

And it's certainly not the inherent beauty of the German language. It's simply that we don't want the sheer stupidity of the plot and inanity of the dialogue made so plain and obvious. If it's in some foreign language we can only partially understand then we can pretend that the libretto is as sophisticated as we (think we) are. Instead we know that one of the great musical triumphs of all time is as mind-numbing as a Bollywood blockbuster and as pointless as Terrance and Phillip's Asses of Fire (and for the time, probably as tasteful).

Red said it best after Andy got sent to the hole for blaring Mozart over the Shawshank loudspeakers:
I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin' about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin' about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.

But it's over and done with sooner than I could finish this post. And so blaring over the speakers in my living room — much to the dismay perhaps of my rock 'n' roll neighbors — is the overture to Le Nozze di Figaro. And for those of you who might not be classical music fans, anything that opened up Trading Places can't be all bad, right?

Some of us do love classical music, though. Do you remember intermission at the Chicago Symphony on our second date, a mere 48 hours after we first met, and you said, "I am perfectly happy right now"?

But let's not get carried away with ourselves here. This is a rock 'n' roll country and this is a rock 'n' roll blog. And so I contend that it really doesn't get much better than this . . .

Free Advice for KFC's Marketing Department

I'm a suggestible eater, and if you run a TV ad showing a big box full of fried chicken, biscuits, and boneless wings, I'm quite likely to put "Stop by KFC for a box of fried chicken, biscuits, and boneless wings" on my to-do list.

However: if you lead into your fried chicken ad with an ad for some sort of contraceptive device that repeatedly uses the phrase "vaginal ring," and if you follow your fried chicken ad with one for Gold Bond medicated powder, well, I'm just not as hungry as I used to be. So tell the folks at TNT that there are enough ads for Ford trucks and Sprint phones that they don't need to bookend your spots with things that make your target market queasy. I'm just sayin'.

I've got some thoughts for the folks at NuvaRing about the merits of building contraceptive devices out of what appear to be discarded Slinkies, but I'll save those for another time, my chicken's getting cold.

Malcompound Words

Following the wild BYU victory over Washington, where a questionable excessive celebration penalty contributed to Washington missing a key extra point, an extremely-excited Lou Holtz described the outcome as "a shamesty". Presumably he thought it was both a sham and a travesty, but in his 140/80 condition he couldn't articulate either word clearly. Since that time, I've come across a number of other instances of these malcompounds, and I've come to enjoy them as a distinct linguistic phenomenon.

A few weeks ago, I read a financial report describing the surprisingly weak condition of a certain company as "abherrent," which could be just a typo, but which I interpreted as meaning something that's both aberrant and abhorrent. There certainly ought to be a word like that, and now there is.

And today there was a commentator who described tomorrow's presidential inauguration as "monumentous," which is a great combination of monumental and momentous. And she's right!

Oh, Grow Up, King

From time to time I'll mention in conversation that my son and daughter were born in the same hospital as the King of Thailand. Bhumibol Adulyadej is the only sovereign monarch ever born on American soil.

I don't see it as a point of pride, necessarily, that my children share their point of entry with a reigning royal. A woman in my RA group in college once announced, with a flush of adoration in her cheeks, that she'd been given her name by some sultan or other who had taken a shine to her on a long airplane flight. Well, her parents had named her first, but the sultan had renamed her, and this was a great honor, and so on and so forth. I can't say I get the same royal kick out of my kids' brush with "greatness" — I think because King Bhumibol (pictured below, before and after a wild night out on the town) seems like a bit of a jerk.

You see, notwithstanding that Bhumibol was delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts — in a town, a state, a nation historically unimpressed by royalty, and deeply skeptical of any averments about a sovereign's infallibility — he insists on enforcing an absurd lèse majesté law that sees his remotest critics imprisoned for what they say about him. Why, just today Thai authorities slapped an Australian author with a three-year prison term for a single paragraph of text that the King deemed offensive. The text appeared in a novel that had a print-count of fifty copies, only ten of which the defendant ever sold. Hey, CNN: what exactly did this guy say about our buddy Bhumibol?

CNN has chosen not to repeat the allegations made by Nicolaides because it could result in CNN staff being prosecuted in Thailand.

And there you have it. An octogenarian multibillionaire with a Yul Brynner complex commands, and the cowed international media fall in line. C'mon, Anderson Cooper: you're not afraid to chew out elites, plus your mama's a VANDERBILT. Take this guy on.

But you can hardly blame them: this is a country that arrested and imprisoned an air traveler to Bangkok because he refused to turn off his overhead light at the urging of the Thai princesses on board. (What's with all these royals hopping flights with the rabble, anyway? Shouldn't they have their own planes?) The Thai government recently pledged between 100 and 500 million bhat (between $2.8 and $14 million) to block domestic Web traffic to sites like YouTube that refuse to take down content that insults the King. There's money well spent in this economy.

All this is just silly. I might understand if you're a twenty-year-old King, newly coronated, and you want to take your dad's lèse majesté law out for a test drive, haul in some old prep school rivals and see them flogged and abased. It could be fun — a novelty. But this guy's 89, and he's still not secure enough in himself to avoid diverting the power and legitimacy of the state to petty preoccupations about his image? A sad case, because it sounds as though he's done some good works in his lifetime and is fairly well-liked (recent significant political schisms notwithstanding). But we'll remember Bhumibol the Uncriticizable for his love-hate relationship with YouTube.

And now I suppose I've gone and violated this crappy law myself. I figure that since Google owns both YouTube and Blogger, my criminal insults here will stay up. Sad, though, that I won't be able to go to Thailand now without risking the Turkish prison treatment. But I didn't want my tourist dollars going off to build firewalls against free speech, anyway. We can say what we like here at Feigned Outrage — at least until we set up our Bangkok bureau.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Yeah — Thought So

Here's a story for you: Harvard kid transfers to LSU; lands the starting QB job, after the Next Big Thing craps out of the Tigers' program; gets concussed and leg-crushed in league play; then figures out — duh! — that his life chances are better if he avoids certain death and dismemberment in the SEC and gets his Harvard degree instead.

Bright guy.

India V: Are you there, God? It's me, Mithridates.


On the drive from Udaipur to Jodhpur, we stopped off in Ranakpur to visit the Adinatha, a Jain temple built in 1439. It's one of the five holy Jain pilgrimige sites in India, but it's sort of in the middle of nowhere, so not quite as overrun with tourists as your typical giant, intricate, centuries-old temple in India. We removed our shoes and walked in through the entrance (pictured above) to be greeted by a very friendly — and clearly devout — Jain man dressed in what looked like a Roman toga.

High Priest: Hello, and welcome to the Adinatha. I am the high priest of the temple. Would you allow me to show you around and explain the history of the temple and some of the important facets of the Jain religion?
M: Sure! Thank you very much! We'd like that very much!

After a few days of being hounded by hotel touts, shopkeepers, and beggars, it was quite a relief to be in a place free from that, where people were just friendly for the sake of being friendly and you could be shown around a temple — not by some huckster trying to scam a few dollars off you — but by a man of god who just wanted to share his faith with strangers.

He showed us around some (not all) of the 1444 engraved pillars, each one individually carved, no two identical. He showed us the tree trunk that looked just like the trunk of the Indian god Ganesh and explained to us that he was the 17th generation of high priests dating back to the early days of the temple.

At the end of the tour, the priest explained to us that they were a poor people and that maintenance of this beautiful cathedral was paid for by the kind generosity of pilgrims and tourists. I gladly gave the man 200 rupees, happy to contribute to the upkeep of such an architectural and religious treasure. On our way out we saw a group of tourists greeted by another Jain togate.

Huckster: Hello. I am the high priest of the temple.

I couldn't believe that some unscrupulous hawker would commit open blasphemy in a holy temple mere feet from the real high priest. And the poor suckers believed him! And no doubt gave him money that should be going to the temple . . .

But I came across many true believers in my brief travels. Most people I spoke with seemed to honestly believe in Hindu or Muslim god(s). But for most of the Hindus it seemed to be a more personal experience than religion in the west. My Gujarati host didn't go to temple, but he believed in the gods. His favorite god was Lord Vishnu because of his message of peace. My favorite Hindu god is Ganesh. People pray to him to remove obstacles, but I like him because of the elephant head. My host was a religious Hindu, but his favorite Christian god was St. Jude, whom people pray to for help with lost causes.

Of course, in the swankier parts of Mumbai, religion seems to lose its grip. Like everywhere else, the young, cosmopolitan hipsters are more educated and wealthy, like Western dress and music, and aren't as bothered by the Bhagavad Gita. But this is still a tiny fraction of the population. In Gujarat and Rajasthan, Hinduism seemed an important part of life. Ganesh was everywhere, people prayed to Vishnu, cows were sacred, people bathed in the Ganges (and you had better have one or more gods on your side if you are going to go come in personal contact with a river that washes away the ashes from funeral pyres, including the occasional whole dead baby floating along).

And yes, I did observe a small bit of tension between Hindus and Muslims only a couple of weeks after the attacks in Mumbai. Our hotel manager in Udaipur was convinced that Mulims in India are really on Pakistan's side. Almost everyone who spoke on the subject of the attacks — a subject I never brought up — expressed visible anger at Pakistan and wanted their government to do something about it instead of just talking. But only in that one case did it manifest itself as a Hindu-Muslim conflict instead of an India-Pakistan conflict.

In general people were very comfortable talking about their religious beliefs and asking me about mine. My psychiatrist friend from the train ride to Bera had spent quite some time explaining how important religion was to his life before turning the tables.

Psychiatrist: And you? Are you Christian?
M: No, I'm Jewish. But actually I'm not much of a believer.

And then I waited to see the reaction. Look, I think people are mostly good, but I've encountered some quirky beliefs about my people in far away lands. Eleven years ago my tour guide in Hanoi spent a day explaining to us how the Chinese had invaded several times and when they visit they throw trash on the ground; how the French had colonized them, treated them like animals, and then on their way out burned as many temples as they could; and finally how the Americans had waged a long and nasty war in their country. The next day on a boat in the middle of Halong Bay, he said he forgave all these people for what they'd done.

But there was one group of people he hated: Jews. You see, one time one of his customers refused to pay an extra five-dollar charge he claimed he wasn't told about. So my tour guide punched him in the face and made him take the bus back to town. The tour guide's friend kindly explained to the guide that it was because the customer was from a country that's all Jews. And there you have it. Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants (and sure, some Jews, too) can invade, burn, and destroy on a massive scale and they're all forgiven. One Jew (maybe?) stiffs him five bucks and he hates us all forever. So there I was on a boat in the middle of the otherwise deserted bay with my Kung Fu-trained guide, a crew of three and just me and my female companion. If the guy wanted to hit me on the head and thrown me over, no one would ever find me. Of course, my companion then helpfully blurts out "Oh come on, don't you know Mithridates is Jewish?" But everything worked out fine and by the end of the trip I hope some prejudices had been dispelled.

OK, sincere apologies for the Vietnamese diversion. Here we are back in the train waiting to see if my friend harbored any such feelings.

But no, not this guy. He had nothing but fondness and praise for my people.

P: Oh, a Jew! Jews are wealthy industrialists in your country. And you have great power and influence in your government!
M: Uh, well . . .
P: Yes, it's true. I read that somewhere.

And it was clear that this just made him have more respect for me. My brief protests to the contrary, suggesting that this might be a simplistic exaggeration and crude generalization, were taken as merely modesty on my part. From his point of view, I was a member of a wealthy and powerful caste in my country and he was paying me a compliment.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Journal's Celebration of the FISA Review Court Ruling: "Unwarranted"

An August 2008 decision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, disclosed only yesterday, held that the Bush Administration's warrantless-wiretapping program does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Cue editorial triumphalism from the Wall Street Journal:
Ever since the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping program was exposed in 2005, critics have denounced it as illegal and unconstitutional. Those allegations rested solely on the fact that the Administration did not first get permission from the special court created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Well, as it happens, the same FISA court would beg to differ.

* * *

For all the political hysteria and media dishonesty about George W. Bush "spying on Americans," this fight was never about anything other than staging an ideological raid on the President's war powers. Barack Obama ought to be thankful that the FISA court has knocked the bottom out of this gambit, just in time for him to take office.

But all this hoo-hah from the Journal is unwarranted (ba-dum-bum). Here's the thing: there are two warrantless-wiretapping programs. There's the first program, which the Administration took up in secret after 9/11 without approval from Congress and concealed from all of us until word of it was leaked in 2005. And there's the program to which Congress gave temporary assent in 2007's Protect America Act, and its final approval last July.

The FISA Review Court's ruling had to do with the second program, and it only held that the Fourth Amendment did not require warrants in these circumstances, and that any constitutional privacy concerns were alleviated by the Administration's scrupulous compliance with certain safeguards that Congress, and the Administration itself by executive order (to its credit), had impressed upon the process — including a requirement that the Administration "reasonably believe" that the surveillance targets are "located outside the United States."

The FISA Review Court had nothing to say about the first program, which I think we can assume contained none of the procedural safeguards that made the difference to the court here (I say "assume" because the Administration refused to tell us how the program worked). At a minimum, the first program was undertaken in clear violation of the wiretap and FISA laws, which required individual approval of each and every wiretap.

And I'd venture to say it was exactly the uproar over the secrecy and intrusiveness of the first program — as the Journal puts it, the "political hysteria and media dishonesty about George W. Bush 'spying on Americans'" — that resulted in Congress and the Administration writing the program-saving safeguards into law.

Hate on the "liberal media" all you want, Wall Street Journal, but this is democracy at its finest: the press ferrets out secret abuses of power, and the law corrects them.