July 2011

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net


I was driving home tired in the dark and had an interesting and very dangerous experience. I thought I was on Peninsula Boulevard and was looking for a left turn onto Gibson. I was on Gibson already and should have made a right turn. When my wife pointed this out, I swung to the right and was almost hit by a speeding car which had intended to pass me on the right in the road's single lane. In the confusion of the moment, my disorientation and exhaustion, I am not sure I signalled or checked my mirrors. On the other hand, he was driving too fast and may have been in my blind spot. Anyway, we narrowly avoided a serious accident. It was one of those moments, so interestingly analyzed by Charles Perrow in "Normal Accidents", where Everything You Think You Know is Wrong.

A dark age

Have I made it clear that I think a new dark age is coming? Human population will double again before 2050, to an incredible twelve billion people. We are increasingly subject to unexpected and devastating disaster as the planet warms, while significant and powerful elements in our polity deny we have caused any global problems and resolutely fight any attempt to address them. Our ability to build and rebuild infrastructure has gone away, the health system is broken, prices and unemployment are rising, and there is simply no prospect that we will summon genies or a deus ex machina to solve our problems at the global level. If we save ourselves from utter destruction, it will be by means of a catastrophic crash into a new dark age--which will be the only available way to solve our overpopulation problem and put us a large step further away from being able to wield the technologies which are destroying (or capable of destroying) the planet.

Shooting unarmed protestors

I imagined too well a few months ago when I described unarmed Palestinians trying to walk across Israeli borders. It happened again at the Syrian border, and the Israelis killed another twenty. They have pointed out quite reasonably that no counttry can permit angry adversaries simply to walk in, that they issued warnings and fired warning shots and used tear gas first. All of which is right but wrong, for two reasons. From a political standpoint, the Israelis have avoided making peace for decades, so this can be seen as a cost of that decision. On a more visceral level, how long will Israeli soldiers be able to fire on and kill these protestors weekly, before some start breaking down, laying their guns down and walking away?

Anthony Weiner

What is there to say? You would think it would be the easiest thing in the world, if you are an ambitious politician, to refrain from idiotic behavior which will humiliate you and end your career if exposed. Why can't politicians keep their dicks in their pockets? Do you have to suffer from paraphilias to go into politics?


In the 1990's, I was proud to be on the cutting edge of technology (if you'll pardon a cliche). In '95, I founded what was certainly one of the first consultancies creating web-based front ends to business applications. Our most famous competitor, Razorfish, launched a full year later.

However, in the 2000's, I was in a conversation one time with a young relative, and said, "I'm not a gadget guy", and he (rather unnecessarily) answered, "No, you're not".

That got me thinking. Even in the 90's, I avoided buying the hot new gadget, never owned a Palm Pilot or any of that wave of handheld PC's you wrote on with a stylus. I don't have an MP3 player, a KIndle or equivalent, or even an I-phone.

Why not? There are several reasons. I never believed in technology as an end in itself, just as a means to solve problems. A large percentage of all the technology ever released was a solution without a problem. My favorite example was a device advertised just once or twice in full page New York Times ads in the 1980's which purported to allow you to split the signal from your VCR to several televisions. That way, you and your kids could watch the same movie together, but in different rooms! But why would you want to? Snazzy solution, absent problem.

Obsession with the cool features of a particular technology interferes with a consultant's ability to solve problems. I remember being a front seat spectator to a debacle in which consultants in love with Steve Jobs' "Next" computer (his project during the years he was forced out of Apple) proposed it as the platform for a mapping application which should have been done on the more powerful Sun workstation. When you clicked on a map feature to zoom in, the system took forty minutes to load the next screen.

Many of the hot new gadgets will go away entirely within a year or two, either because people realize they don't need them for anything, or because they are replaced by better solutions. Others are first draft solutions which are so buggy, it is best to wait a few generations while more eager pioneers work out the kinks.

It is relevant here to note that in the last few decades, I have thrown out entire libraries of music and movies: hundreds of long playing records, tape cassettes and VHS tapes. I only own about ten DVD's, mostly gifts (I once had a book case with more than 300 VHS cassettes), but with the advent of streaming, those are becoming useless as well.

I used to tell people (really as a quick excuse to avoid a longer explanation) that I would buy a Kindle when they got the price down to about $100--now its almost there. I will have an I-phone when my cheap cell-phone fails and that is what they offer me as the free, or almost-free, replacement. MP3 player? Maybe never. In earlier years, I bought and rarely used portable cassette and CD players. As a lifelong New Yorker, I never wanted to be so bemused by music that I miss the sound of a speeding bicycle approaching from behind, or someone cocking a gun...

Movies on demand?

Last night we set out to watch a Netflix "Instant Play" movie on a laptop. Netflix, which has often seemed slow and buggy on every computer I have used to access it, hung for minutes on end as I tried to start the film, displaying the little spinning circle. Finally, I restarted the computer, a hellish process on every Windows PC I have ever owned. Does the computer ever actually restart itself without five or six interventions, and telling it a second or third time to restart? Turning the computer off and back on, and allowing it to recover files, seems a whole lot more efficient, if violent.

By the time I was back where I started, launching the film, about ten minutes had elapsed. This caused me to compare the experience with turning on a traditional TV, loading a DVD into the player or hitting the DVR button. Technology is supposed to do whatever you ask it to, immediately, and the same way every time. A toaster makes your toast to the same brownness at the same setting on every try. It does not burn every fifth piece of toast, or leave the bread unheated on the sixth attempt. Of all technologies, we have only been brainwashed into expecting computers to crash regularly, and to vary their results. My experience last night gives a new meaning to the phrase "movies on demand".

By the way, how hard would it be to scale the Internet at the PC level, so that with a small computer such as my HP Mini, you get a small Internet? Block out all the active software, the cookies and scripts, and deliver only my email and HTML pages, which are all I need. This shouldn't be something it takes a wizard to configure, but the default choice on a computer so limited it takes ten minutes to launch Mozilla after booting up.

Later--a PC is like a pen with which you can't write continuously, which forces you to stop and wait just as you have an inspiration and are madly eager to get it down on paper. It is like a bicycle which forces you to dismount and walk just as you attain an aerobic burn. PC's do not permit creative flow, but interrupt it rudely every moment.

Print on demand?

I seem to be writing a lot about the vagaries of technology this month. I bought a wireless Epson printer and thought, what a great idea! Everyone has a wireless router and the printer can now sit anywhere in the room or in the house, without any messy cabling.

The printer has barely worked since we hooked it up and I am on the verge of connecting it to the laptop via a cable after all. After a short period of disuse of a day or so, the next time I attempt to print, the computer tells me the printer is "offline", while the printer demonstrates it is accessing the wireless network by displaying a green light. A Google search reveals that the phenomenon of wireless printers going offline is a very common one just now. Once I followed some complicated steps and the printer worked again, but I don't remember what they were and have to research them again.

On the assumption technology should be designed to be used by people of average intelligence and not just for wizards, I wonder what the rationale is of even having an "offline" status for printers. If my computer and printer share a wireless connection, shouldn't we assume I want to be able to print and the printer should never take itself "offline"? If there is a reason a printer should ever be offline, shouldn't there be a dialog box which says, "Bring printer online now"? Why should I have to go into other areas, such as the confusing "My Computer" screen, to set the printer as default or perform other tasks? Why especially should I have to do that over and over again?

The moral of the story, and the reason it is worth writing about in the Spectacle, is that companies which formerly had higher standards--HP, which made my netbook, Epson, which manufactured the printer--and others, which never did but should, such as Microsoft, have somehow been emboldened to sell us crap technology, for years on end, without effective government intervention. Free markets do not seem to adjust themselves to ensure quality products, but to end in arrogance and monopolistic behavior.


The legal ability of companies to raid pension plans or discontinue them is shocking. A pension is intended to be an entitlement. People take jobs and invest twenty-five or thirty-five years of their life in a company in order to receive a pension, not for the chance of one. Taking it away or changing the terms after someone has devoted her life to your company is an act of contempt, a fraud, a theft of life.

Gay marriage

I am very proud that my state, New York, has enacted gay marriage, an act which recognizes a fundamental fairness, nurtures and protects a recently vilified class of people, promotes stability and harms nobody.


We may be watching the spectacle of a state which doesn't care if it has cops, firefighters, teachers or universities.

Indian casinos

The concept that our reparations to America's Indian nations is to allow them to operate casinos is actually quite amusing. Come to think of it, whay haven't we offered the decendants of slaves the same boon? Why don't Jews have an exclusive on casinos in Germany?

Hedge fund management

Well, kids, what have we learned since 2008? The mysterious skill needed to run a hedge fund is much-vaunted and almost fictional. People who were quite successful as brokers or providers of financial software aspire to it, raise lots of money and discover they have no special aptitude for it. So they turn to Ponzi schemes or insider trading as a substitute. The alternative: admitting they don't know how to beat bank interest rates and giving the money back.

Martian telescope theory

The most fundamental, needed, simple, clear and (for the most part, but not exclusively, correspondingly ethical) jobs are those which can be understood by a Martian watching through a telescope: emergency medical technician, nursery school teacher. The ones which can't be are the ones which get humanity in trouble (designing mortgage backed securities, for example).


I propose that there are three types of suicides, correlating to Freud's divisions of the mind. Id suicides are driven by intense, unreasoning emotion, such as despair or fear. Ego suicides are more reflective, fueled by disappointment or anger ("that will show them"). The rarer super-ego suicide is motivated by considerations of private or public good. The closest thing to a personal motive in a super-ego suicide would be to check out as Freud did, in the face of unbearable pain, with the consent of the people around you, or the sure knowledge they don't need you any more. "First, do no harm."

Because teenage suicides are usually id-driven, and the suicides of twenty-somethings distinctly egotistical, I suggest that people generally be counseled not to even think about killing themselves before age forty or so, when we have more of an ability wearily to wait out the lows with the knowledge that, in a day or so or year or so, things will get better. It would be a better world if the only type of suicide left was super-ego driven.


The revelation that the Bush administration asked the CIA to gather negative information on professor Juan Cole, a domestic critic of the war, flashes us back to the Nixon enemies list. How much domestic spying goes on is always a matter of question--an acquaintance at an involved nonprofit says we should all assume we are at least episodically monitored. For decades, I have thought of filing a FOIA request to see if the Spectacle, or old anti-Vietnam war activities, or anything else, earned me an FBI file. I always held off because I assumed that if you file a FOIA request and don't have a file, they start one. But I don't care about that any more, and will probably try it. I'll keep you posted.

Later--I just drafted two FOIA requests, one to the FBI main office and one to the New York field office (it appears that the FBI is still very low tech and decentralized). As a private individual not notable enough for a Wikipedia bio, who has attended a few demonstrations, written a book and a few articles, filed a couple amicus briefs and edited the Spectacle, I really should not have a file. Discovering whether I do or not will give me a better idea of the kind of country we live in.


Apropos of surveillance, a fascinating article in the Times for June 20 described some of the new drone aircraft being developed. The upshot is that by 2030, we will have myriad bird and insect-sized robots in the air, capable of swarming everywhere and listening to and photographing everybody.


There is a whole foreclosure machine which has been constructed in this country, the product of which is human misery. It begins with the banks and other institutions which bought and sold mortgages at such a dizzying rate that ultimately they don't even know what they have. Banks which can't produce original documents are legion; there are a number of cases of several institutions fighting over who holds a mortgage; I heard of one case of a foreclosure filed against a homeowner who had no mortgage. Read the legal classifieds, and they are full of job openings for foreclosure specialists, most of whom are being hired to prosecute, not defend. It was reported this week that in New York City, politically connected lawyers, such as the spouses of mayoral aides, are making shit-loads of money through judicial appointments to lead foreclosures. Meanwhile, the public defender organizations and charities which provide lawyers to people in dire situations have all been decimated. To me, the bitterest and most surprising part is that the great majority of the fuckees are humbly accepting their own destruction, and going gently into that good night. If a bank foreclosed me, the very least I would do is take a cot and armchair, this computer and a few books, and go live in the ATM vestibule.

Class actions

The conservative Supreme Court majority, dominated by the Koch Brothers-owned dynamic duo of Scalia and Thomas, threw out a massive class action against Walmart for sex discrimination, on the interesting ground that the women couldn't be certified as a class because they had all suffered in different ways. The result will be that, instead of defending itself in a single trial, Walmart will have to litigate several thousand, an outcome I sincerely hope it will regret. Two other decisions this week: holding that defendants in child support cases do not have a universal right to counsel (even though imprisonment is a possible outcome) and blocking states from limiting utilities' pollution. The overt way in which the Supremes are doing their part to protect billionaires amd grind down the already bruised and reeling middle class in this country is quite astonishing, really.


In the '90's, I wrote a position paper for the Cato Institute on Internet anonymity. Back then, the nascent net seemed like a super printing press allowing us all to express our controversial political views under constitutionally-honored pseudonyms (the Framers did no differently when they wrote the Federalist essays). Today, the Internet has instead become an engine for the identification of anyone who rants at a conductor on the train, assumes a false persona on a web site or even kisses her boyfriend in public.

The new word of the month...

....is "fracking", a method of injecting chemicals into the ground to extract oil and gas, which may pollute ground water and has even been blamed for causing earthquakes.

Spending on war

A group of America's mayors have called for an end to the current wars, so that billions will be available to address their cities' problems. This is a linkage it is startling that nobody previously publicly made: we are foreclosing on homes, creating new homeless, cutting pensions, laying off cops and firefighters across the country, while we continue to spend billions rather fruitlessly in Afghanistan and Iraq.

War powers

The War Powers act was passed in the 1970's to reign in the presidential power which had given away 50,000 American lives in Vietnam without a Congressional declaration of war. Good laws should apply regardless of whether the president in office is a Republican or Democrat, has a mean face or a kind one. President Obama is wrong about Libya; to say we are not conducting "hostilities" there is mere lawyering of the most content-free type. It doesn't matter that the Republicans dominate the House, or that some Tea Party members are isolationist. Laws are laws.

New Internet bubble

Amazing. Now that Wall Street is done with real estate, Internet stocks are bubbling again. It confirms my late-breaking thesis that Wall Street is all bubbles and slumps, that there is no "normal" market in between. The whole thing is doubly an overt fraud, because the bankers who create bubbles don't even believe in them; they lie to us, not themselves, and make their money when the stock is first offered, regardless of what happens later. Derivatives, bets against the very stocks they are offering, allow them to profit as much from the slumps as from the bubbles. There are thus two views of Wall Street: the offical Republican story that an unfettered Wall Street is the engine of prosperity we all need to be financially secure; and the barely concealed reality that a rapacious Wall Street owns the government and has the fetters on us.


A new level of dishonesty and trickery has been achieved by the Kansas legislature, which passed a law requiring abortion clinics to have certain size waiting rooms and storage closets in order to get re-licensed. There is no rational relationship of these requirements to any public interest; the real purpose is that none of the remaining Kansas clinics complies, so they can be denied re-licensing and put out of business. What is so astonishing is that the women of this country, including many who have had abortions, are not angrier and more vocal right now, as a significant social movement (loudly supported by some other women) seeks to put them back in an abject and dependent position.

Some states are also attempting to set a twenty week limit on abortions. The Times had a very disturbing account of a woman whose wanted fetus died when her water broke prematurely. Nobody dared give her an abortion, so she had to deliver a dead baby and became infected. This is a text book case of government intervening in private issues regarding individual health and ordaining that women's survival is less important, in this case, than the carrying of a dead baby to term.

Fun with numbers: One hears occasional mention of one hundred and sixty million or so missing women, in places such as India where women are aborting female fetuses because sons are viewed as a better investment. While this is rather shocking on a first encounter, the more you think about it, the less substance it has as a moral argument. We don't usually take away personal rights (such as speaking freely or bearing arms) because some substantial portion of the population is exercising those rights foolishly. The mass argument thus becomes irrelevant, little more than an exclamation, "Look what happens when you allow that!" The First Amendment, after all, has led to a lot of blithering and some highly disgusting violent and sexual imagery. "Look what happens!" If those missing people have a right to exist--a right which, let us not forget, actually would have to trump the independence, integrity and autonomy of the women bearing them--they would have that right individually, not simply in mass. One missing girl or boy would then be as important as 160 million. Conversely, if that missing baby has no rights, 160 million can't, because 160 million x zero = zero.

Bank of America

Bank of America will pay an $8.5 billion settlement--wait, I didn't emphasize that properly, $8.5 BILLION--for its role in the mortgage collapse. The punchline is: that money is going to Metropolitan Life, the Federal Reserve and Blackrock, for selling them mortgage-backed securities that went south.

Let's sum this up. If you obtained a mortgage from Bank of America that went bad, that's your own damn fault; buyer beware. But if you obtained a mortgage backed security instead, you get your money back.

Can you see any moral difference between being hornswoggled into taking a mortgage you shouldn't have, and being conned into buying a bad security? I can't. The only rule I can derive from this is that, if you steal from the poor (or the middle class, apparently), you get to keep the money; but if you steal from the rich, you have to make restitution.

The Gaza flotilla

After killing nine passengers and crew on a previous flotilla bringing supplies and symbolism to Gaza, Israel is discrediting itself by threatening to ban journalists considering passage on the ships, and complaining to ports about their insurance. There has also been one mysterious act of sabotage against a propellor. The Israelis like to act as if they believe, and perhaps some do believe, they are the only ones who matter. Why a country which no longer gives the least appearance of seeking the middle ground, of recognition for others of the same rights they once demanded, would continue to deserve the loyalty of small d democrats, liberals, people who believe in the legitimate pursuit of everyone's dreams, is beyond me. Even if we happen to be Jews.

Sarah Palin

...appears to be pulling a Donald Trump; in an era where the line between public and private, and between entertainment and politics, is invisible, she is feigning a run for president while really building her personal importance for future media projects. If I am wrong about this, she will be very late to the party, as her ecological niche appears already to be well filled by by Michele Bachmann, a somewhat more intelligent wing nut.

Supreme Court activism

An interesting op ed in the Times for June 29 reviews the instances in which Supreme Court justices have recently attended political meetings and staked out positions. It supports something I said here, that attendance at Koch Brothers meetings by Justices Scalia and Thomas is the most egregious example going. And it quotes Justice Thomas, in a speech to conservative law students, musing out loud about whether the "fundamental changes that are going on now" (the health care law) are "reversible in any way". He said he thought it was worth trying--a grotesque example of a judge discussing how he would rule in a future case, and a clear violation of ethics and common sense.

More on unions

I am rooting for the unions in places like Wisconsin, but not without a dose of realism and cynicism. As a life long New Yorker, I have some insight into the nexus between politicians, unions and organized crime. I know that unions, which are as much a concentrator of political money and votes as any blandly right wing 501(c)(4), have had a lock on urban policy making for mnany years, and have contributed significantly to the problems we are facing today. But it was Wall Street greed and insanity, not union feather-bedding, that triggered the current emergency, and I oppose any solution that spares the billionaires while putting the full onus on the unions and other members of the middle class. I have a lot of problems with the way unions operate, but I am glad they exist as a counterweight, and will take their side in the current battles every time.

Spectacle of the month

Orlando is imprisoning people for feeding the homeless without a permit in public parks. A law passed to outlaw the activities of a particular group, Food Not Bombs, specifies that no organization will receive more than two permits per year per park. That would work fine in a world where homeless people only needed to eat a few times each year.

Some years back, a right wing pundit named Marvin Olasky wrote a book entitled "The Tragedy of Compassion", arguing that as a driver of public policy, compassion is a Very Bad Thing, and always backfires. It still astounds me, nonetheless, how enraged some conservatives get when anyone tries to help the unfortunate. It also puts the lie to other conservatives who have argued that, if public entitlements are cut, individuals and charities will step up to help those who need it. Orlando has declared, "we won't feed them--and you can't either."