September 2012

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

Software and stocks

I have often marveled at the stupidity of smart people, whose arrogance or ideology or both often prevents them from seeing or acknowledging the obvious. When I worked in software development, I attempted to champion the importance of a software development methodology, version control, documentation, test and other products of rigorous care to people who laughed them off (in a company which went out of business a few years later). After fifty or sixty years of computer software as a mainstay, an indispensable tool in life and business, only small artisans know how to make software safely, while large corporations and governments still bumble ridiculously. Last week, trader Knight Capital turned on a trading system which had not been adequately tested and had no off switch, tanked the market, and possibly put itself out of business.

Stop and frisk

NYPD stops are down 34% largely as a result of demonstrations, public outcry and supportive judicial decisions. It should have been a no brainer for New Yorkers to say, years ago, that they didn't want to live in a city where the cops could randomly stop and search anyone walking down the street. As they would have if the cops posted themselves on Wall Street and searched all the traders. Since the prejudice, the intimidation, was all aimed at dark skinned young males in poor neighborhoods, we were complacent far too long.


I just bought a pair of boots for next winter at the Astoria thrift shop. Its a decent brand, and I paid $20. If I had bought boots new, I would have paid about $70 for an unknown brand, more for the ones I got. Years ago, I favored Red Wing, then a working class brand, which has apparently now been discovered by the 1%, as they now go for up to $300 a pair. Increasingly, I find myself buying all my outer clothes used--jeans, shirts, coats, and probably the next suit I purchase for court. I enjoy being Madison Avenue's basic nightmare--the guy who never watches or clicks on an ad, and buys only used merchandise.

Legal ethics

I know a lot of people think these words are an oxymoron, but I was impressed to find that thoughtful bar associations are coming out against lawyers using subterfuges in social media relations. Lots of parties to litigation, as well as some witnesses including experts, happily post stuff on Facebook which contradicts their assertions, or undermines their standing, in court. The supposedly disabled plaintiff posts her ski pictures, and the expert witness lies about his age and education on his wall. Per the ethics committees, if you want to find this material, you cannot do so via an impersonation--posing, for example, as an attractive young woman sending a friend request to a foolishly outspoken young male plaintiff. Its a reassuring sign that legal ethics exists and is adapting itself to the new world of social media.


501(c)(4) groups are among the despicable products of Citizens United--aggregators of "independent" billionaire spending, ostensibly not coordinated with a campaign, which offer substantial anonymity to contributors. To add insult to injury, these organizations are tax-exempt as well, on the theory that their political spending, in reality their raison d'etre, is an afterthought, a minority of their activity. Their existence, and the Supreme Court decision ratifying their role, is a direct view into the billionaire imagination: the ability to act decisively and anonymously to influence American political outcomes, exempt from any rules or regulations whatever. In blunter words, the billionaires regard themselves as a higher life form than the rest of us: do you really want to permit that to continue? Even Republicans, even very right wing Republicans who themselves are not billionaires, ought to oppose billionaire domination of government, which drowns out their voices as much as anyone else's. Or do you believe, the minute you disagree with your billionaire masters (likely at the moment they require a sacrifice you are not willing to make, of your wealth or freedom or even your life) that your voice will continue to be heard?

Quote of the month

It is always educational when someone in public life says something that we are all expected to take as a given, but which is shockingly different from what you would have expected. One of those "did I miss the memo?" moments. Here is the best one in a while, in an article about the U.S. role in Africa: "The U.S. is not going to build highways and bridges and airports..." Really? Why not? Is that because we can no longer build them at home? Have we lost the ability? The speaker, a former assistant secretary of state for Africa, claims that we are happy China can still do that in Africa, since we cannot.

Young Republicans

Young Republicans are often pro-gay (or are gay), pro-abortion, etc. Will they modify their party? And when? I suspect that they are merely dupes of a party which will cleave to its social conservative bigotry until the current fifty year olds are ninety. If there is ever any change, it will be closer to the 22nd century.

A medical anecdote

For much of my adult life, I had a small patch of flaky skin on my face, usually next to my nose. Dermatologists displayed no interest; I learned there are things which doctors don't care about, for which they do not suggest a solution (I have experienced several of those). A quarter century went by, and suddenly one day a dermatologist had a product to recommend: a foreign-manufactured bar of soap which was one of the few miracle drugs I have known: the flaking, which I thought would persist the rest of my life, went away. One peculiarity: the soap's instructions told you to use it instead of your shampoo as well. I washed my hair and face with it and was happy. Imagine my distress a year and a half later when the miracle soap, which had never been extensively marketed here, became unavailable. It was too hard, I imagined, to persuade Americans to wash their hair with soap instead of shampoo from a tube. Then someone explained to me that the active ingredient in the soap was also the active ingredient in many shampoos: zinc pyrithione. So now I wash my hair and face with an ordinary dandruff shampoo, and get the same results. Why didn't the doctor tell me I could use shampoo instead of the hard to find soap? Why do shampoo manufacturers never recommend you try washing your face with the product? It is a minor case study of medicine, marketing and human psychology.


Fareed Zakaria is just the latest in a long progression of historians, journalists and novelists to get caught engaging in plagiarism. This is reaching epidemic proportions; my wife had an experience some years ago where a college professor and a journalist both lifted prose from the same article of hers, and more recently I was informed that a speaker at a PEN conference had re-used entire paragraphs of an old essay of mine.

The always interesting "Ethics Alarms" blog gives some insight into what is happening: a practice called "scraping" in which someone cuts and pastes your text with the intention of using it as a template for their work, then simply fails to elide the similarities enough.

First, this would never be acceptable in fiction, which is presumed to be an entirely original creation. The "Opal Mehta" scandal some years ago involved a novel constructed of paragraphs taken verbatim from some others. Novels are simply not written this way so this should always be punished.

Journalism and history, by contrast, are supposed to be a careful accumulation of sources. In all my years of writing, for pay and publication and for the Spectacle, I never cut and pasted anything unless I was planning to use it as an attributed quote. So "scraping" as a writing technique is new to me, and seems morally questionable as a method for constructing a historical account or news piece.

I have always suspected that plagiarism happens because writers with easy morals are under inhuman pressure, contracted to deliver way too much content in too short a timeframe. History-writing in particular used to be a craft, where the author would work quietly for years at a time, carefully writing and polishing, then deliver a new work when ready. Now, like anything else, it has become one more commercial churn, with formerly respected writers like Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin (both of whom have had their own "scraping" problems) trying to deliver a book every year.

Paul Ryan

I didn't know a lot about Paul Ryan. There are really three elements to analyzing a vice presidential choice: the tactical part--what was the candidate hoping to accomplish, what conscious and unconscious factors influenced the final decision? Secondly, is the person "presidential", someone smart and thoughtful and decisive enough to be president one day? Third and last, what are the individual's beliefs? Regardless of how "presidential" they are, you may hope they never inhabit the job based on the goals and principles they would bring to it.

Based on what little I know so far, Ryan is at least "presidential", unlike Sarah Palin, Spiro Agnew and (some would say) Joe Biden. Romney made a predictable choice, catering to the far right/Tea Party wing, much as McCain had when he picked Palin, but (since Ryan could actually do the job) with less cynicism and contempt for the public. It is interesting to speculate that he might have picked someone like Condoleeza Rice, or either of the moderate Senators from Maine, Snowe or Collins: foregoing the fringe right entirely in a bold attempt to capture women and independent voters, who are still skewing to Obama.

Ryan however is a Koch Brothers fellow traveler, attending their meetings and receiving donations, and thus, pro-billionaire in what I regard as a sinister way. Representative of the far right of the Party, Ryan is a tool of interests who are not honest about the consequences of their policies. This is the contingent which can only prevail by persuading lower middle class people to vote against their own employment, homes, jobs, education and health; then when the smoke clears, the country in which we all live will look a lot more like Somalia than like any purely imaginary Libertarian paradise.

Later--This was written before the multiple revelations about Ryan's credibility, most notably the fact that he greatly exaggerated his own time running a marathon. He now is starting to present as a compulsive liar, therefore not presidential.

Scott of the Antarctic

I have just been reading about the "ill-fated" South Pole expedition of 1912, and was disturbed to find the following in Commander Robert Falcon Scott's diary for February 17. He had already reached the Pole, only to discover that Amundsen had beat him there, and was on his way back with four companions when Seaman Edgar Evans, a huge, tireless man, began to get sick and falter. That day, Evans kept popping out of his ski shoes amd was unable to continue helping to pull the sledge. So they let him fall behind, but waited for him an hour later. Then, in Scott's own words:

Half an hour later he dropped out again on the same plea. He asked Bowers to lend him a piece of string. I cautioned him to come on as quickly as he could, and he answered cheerfully as I thought. We had to push on, and the remainder of us were forced to pull very hard, sweating heavily. Abreast the Monument Rock we stopped, and seeing Evans a long way astern, I camped for lunch. There was no alarm at first, and we prepared tea and our own meal, consuming the latter.

After lunch, and Evans still not appearing, we looked out, to see him still afar off. By this time we were alarmed, and all four started back on ski. I was first to reach the poor man and shocked at his appearance; he was on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes. Asked what was the matter, he replied with a slow speech that he didn't know, but thought he must have fainted.

They brought him back on the sled and he died that night. What makes this a fascinating moral spectacle is the subtext, the matter of fact recitation of the abandonment of a man they suspected was dying, as if it were perfectly normal. What they did was appalling, the way Scott describes it makes it sound everyday: Evans was staggering, had been sick and fading for days, had sustained some they left him behind and went on with the sled.

Scott, obviously slightly uneasy, goes on to analyze his choice:

It is a terrible thing to lose a companion in this way, but calm reflection shows that there could not have been a better ending to the terrible anxieties of the past week. Discussion of the situation at lunch yesterday shows us what a desperate pass we were in with a sick man on our hands at such a distance from home.

This is highly similar to the deadly Everest expedition I analyzed in my review of Into Thin Air, in which everyone abandoned everyone, an essay which has earned me furious email from mountaineers who believe morality is a luxury at 20,000 feet. Which led me to the question, whether humans ought to go anywhere they can't take morality.

Apparently some leaders and formers of British public opinion even had the nerve to blame Evans for the death, weeks later, of the rest of the party, because he slowed them down and consumed needed food at a crucial time. Go down that path and you arrive at the Nazi philosophy of "useless eaters". Should they have killed Evans earlier? Plundered his clothes? They were getting short of protein; should they have eaten him?

Add to this the fact that Evans was a member of the working class, and that the men who decided to leave him behind were upper class. Evans was invited to the Pole because he was huge and could haul well, and when he could no longer do that, was abandoned exactly like one of the ponies or dogs Scott brought on the trip.

Actually, any sentence proposing that "morality is a luxury in (or at) __________" is a grammatic sentence that communicates nothing honest. Morality can never be a luxury; we don't ever suspend it. People in quite extreme and dangerous circumstances (trapped underground in a mine, adrift in a lifeboat) are still expected to die rather than kill one another. There is no justifiable exception for Everest or polar expeditions, just that the people who make the decisions are the ones who spend the money and write the histories afterwards--and they tend to think they are higher life forms than those they leave dying in the snow.

War and artifacts

A 5,000 year old temple and a medieval citadel are being hit by the gunfire the Syrian government is exchanging with rebels in Aleppo. All of which violates a post-World War II treaty in which countries agreed to kill one another without harming the cultural patrimony. Its pretty funny when you think about it. The best solution to preserve ancient temples and famous artworks is the same as the solution for preserving the lives of young soldiers and civilian populations: don't have wars.

MF Global

The investigation is winding down without indictments. The company squandered billions in protected client money to cover its own debts, and nobody will be held responsible. We are living in an oligarchic world, in which the wealthy will increasingly be free to commit any sort of great crime, murder included, as long as it is against the less powerful.

The Great Depression led to hundreds of indictments, the 2008 "Great Recession" to almost none.


On a related note, Jay Z's role in the financing and marketing of a Broooklyn sports stadium is very interesting. He has even recorded a rap song or two mentioning his involvement. Rap was outsider music, like early rock, only in the single respect that the people who recorded it were initially deprived of the ability to play in the arena of wealth, until they broke in via talent. Unlike the counter-cultural rock musicians, rappers wanted the same things the already rich did: drive a Rolls, sip Kristal, live in a McMansion. Since many rappers either came from a genuine gangster background or pretended to to gain street cred, their increasing role in partnering in large enterprises with the likes of Bruce Ratner also illustrates the age old truth that the line between gangsters and billionaires is exceedingly thin, and in fact, no longer detectable.

Rape, pregnancy and abortion

A real howler: Missouri Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin, a six term Congressman, said that "If its a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Meaning that there needs to be no exception for rape in an abortion ban, because women who were really raped won't get pregnant. The phrase "legitimate rape" is itself kind of an amazing creation, but there is so much more to be learned unpacking the meaning: the implication is, of course, that any rape which results in pregnancy isn't really a rape, presumably because the woman wanted it or provoked it or something. The depth of woman-hatred in this is of course staggering. Add to this the fact that Akin is an engineer and sits on the science committee, and it gives you a vivid image of the ignorant, violent and bigoted Tea Party future. Also, the proposition that the Tea Party is not interested in social issues is a crock.

Quote of the month runner-up

An Upper East Side Catholic school founded by nuns in 1928 to educate the working class community of Hungarian immigrants is repositioning itself as an elite, expensive private school, and becoming whiter by the minute. Timothy J. McNiff, superintendent of schools for the New York archdiocese: "We are here to serve children. We are not looking to see their ethnicity or their socioeconomic background." Wow: We will take no official notice of the fact that our classes, which used to include black and Latino kids, are all wealthy Caucasians. The nuns who founded the place must be spinning.

Mortgage relief

If Obama had the courage and fire of Roosevelt, he would have created a new federal agency, bought the mortgages of millions of troubled Americans, and worked out new terms for them. This would have been good for the people, the banks and the economy. He didn't have the courage, and millions of Americans have lost their homes on his watch.


Democrats have formed a secretive super-PAC to confound the Koch brothers, billionaire masters of deceptive Republican influence. The group has bought ads on MSNBC and CNN which say the Kochs are trying to buy the presidential election. A Koch spokesman sputtered: " attempt to shut down free speech..." Ha.

OK, already

Yes, stop hocking me, I admit that the Obama ad in which a man accused Bain Capital of killing his wife was sleazy and unsupported by an actual chain of causation, because a lot of years and bad choices intervened between Bain's destruction of his employer and his uninsured wife's cancer death. I prefer the President stay on the high ground, differentiate himself from the ever-SwiftBoating Republicans.

Later--For what its worth, this ad was apparently the creation of an "independent" committee of the Citizens United stripe and not the Obama campaign. However, I am happy to hold the campaigns responsible for anything the Super-PAC's do, as I don't believe (despite this evidence) they are completely "uncoordinated".


Its an interesting little allegory that on the anniversary of Katrina, the Republicans at their convention are twisting the schedule around due to the imminent Tropical Storm Isaac, which is possibly headed for Louisiana, which has declared a state of emergency. And so the "no government" types confront the ultimate disaster crying out for big government action, the death and ruin which cannot be addressed by charity or private markets and which was so terribly handled by a Republican "limited government" last time ("Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job").

Empire State shooting

The facts seem simple. An unemployed man shot a former co-worker to death and walked past cops in front of the Empire State Building. A construction worker who had followed him told the cops the man had just shot someone. When they confronted him, he drew his weapon, and they fired sixteen shots at him. He may not have gotten off a single shot (or, per one witness, he may have fired one).

The cops killed him and in so doing, wounded eight or nine bystanders. This is not unheard of in New York, but most shootouts between cops and criminals still take place on deserted outer borough and uptown streets on the graveyard shift, not in midtown at rush hour. When I worked on ambulances, a friend told me a story of a cop who, in shooting a knife wielding psychotic charging at him, had put three or four bullets through my friend's ambulance, with him and his partner sitting in it. "What if he had hit you?" I asked. My friend thought about this, then replied: "I think any time a cop shoots a bystander, while legitimately defending himself against an armed attacker, it is considered acceptable."

What fascinates me is the light this sheds on the Mass Murder Lobby's often repeated thesis that the more of us are carrying, the safer we are. Working the averages, that each cop shot four innocent bystanders, then if the nine bystanders had all been blazing away as well, they would have shot at least thirty six more people (probably more, because not as well trained as the cops). Of course, there were three or four hundred people within a half block, so if just fifty of them had opened fire, we could have had two hundred more injuries (all of them required to be treated at public expense at New York's overburdened trauma hospitals, regardless of whether they have insurance).

More seriously, I used to give the Mass Murder Lobby a little credit, that it was in somewhat good faith but moronically trying to apply rules developed for isolated farmhouses to crowded city streets. If you live alone on a farm fifty miles from a town, I can understand keeping a gun. But nobody has yet described in detail how arming the majority of crowded, tense urban populations could possibly contribute to everyone's safety.

I no longer give the Mass Murder Lobby that much credit, as I believe it was created and financed by arms dealers who simply want to sell as many guns to as many people as possible, regardless of consequences. The ideologues, the ones who sincerely believe in the Second Amendment as an overarching principle, are merely tools of the billionaires.

Gmail Big Brother

I just wrote a gmail message which included the words "is attached". When I tried to send it, Gmail popped up a dialog box asking if I meant to attach a file to the email. I hadn't. And I find the intervention rather creepy, given everything we know about Gmail, the understanding Google acquires of your interests in order to target ads (I get a lot of legal ads), and the fact that it is evidently scanning what you write to acquire an understanding of the content. We have slipped a long way from the world of paper mail, when what you wrote and placed in an envelope was entirely your own business.

Rachel Corrie

An Israeli court found the state not responsible for the death of Rachel Corrie, the young American activist run over by a bulldozer as she attempted to block it from knocking down a Palestinian home in 2003. On the face of it, it seems completely impossible that the driver of a slow moving bulldozer could have been unaware of the presence of an adult woman wearing an orange vest and shouting through a bullhorn. Like the killings of many Palestinians, the incident received no credible official investigation at the time, and the independence of an Israeli court in adjudicating these kinds of matters is easy to doubt. Add to that the complete illegitimacy under international law of the long-standing Israeli practice of destroying the homes of innocent Palestinians after a terrorist incident, and you arrive at a vision of the state that still wants to be seen, at least in the U.S.A., as a liberal democracy, while committing a few convenient murders here and there.


Apropos of that, is there a significant moral or practical difference between the Israeli tactic of walling off Gaza and the Nazi creation of the Warsaw Ghetto? Any differences seem to be of degree, not of kind.


Sufi shrines are being destroyed by Al Qaeda types and other militant Sunnis in Libya, Timbuktu, Pakistan and Egypt, and a Sufi mullah was just murdered by a suicide bomber in Dagestan, an Islamic former Soviet republic. This ancient branch of Islam may be facing its most endangered days. I am reminded of Professor Aaron Streiter of Brooklyn College, who asked his class, one day in 1972, what the darkest century in human history was. After students speculated it was the fourth or the fourteenth, he answerned, "We are living it right now."

Reprinted almost without comment

From the Republican platform: "We oppose legislation that is intended to restrict our Second Amendment rights by limiting the capacity of clips or magazines...."


In other convention news....

It seems there was an outburst of actual democracy at the Republican convention this week as Ron Paul delegates protested their exclusion and mistreatment. Hasn't happened at either convention in decades.....


He isn't a bad guy and wouldn't be a terrible President if he could just be who he was as governor of Massachusetts, when he sponsored health care reform, and supported gay marriage and abortion rights. With a Democratic majority in Congress, he would be a moderate Democrat, barely to Obama's right. The main danger of a Romney administration is that he is a willing captive of the right wing wing nuts of the party, and may continue bowing to them if they are in the majority and sufficiently vocal.

Later--Wow, I was in an indulgent mood when I wrote that. Let me explain: He is apparently not monstrously ambitious and immoral in the Newt Gingrich sense, or psychotically vindictive like Rudy Giuliani or Richard Nixon. He does however appear to be an entitled, clueless almost-billionaire who without a second thought will harm the rest of us by advancing the interests of his class. And he also is a weathervane, willing to say anything to be President. So I don't really like him. Plus he's willing to put Paul Ryan a heartbeat away from the big job.


The Justice Department just closed its inquiry on two Al Qaeda detainees who were apparently tortured to death in secret CIA prisons, without filing any charges.

On the one hand, the President has again failed to fulfill the expectations accompanying his election year, and has held no-one accountable for the excesses of the past just has he has failed to close Guantanamo. On the other, the people who really would have to be indicted and tried for war crimes are ex-President Bush and former Attorney General Ashcroft among others, not the foot soldiers who acted in the spirit if not the exact letter of the orders which came down from above.

Fragmented Times

Friday, August 31, as we go into Labor Day weekend: The Times runs two articles side by side, one an adulatory, very soft soap Romney profile, and the other one a news analysis about his frequent falsehoods in campaign statements. Huh? My wife predicts that the paper is preparing to endorse Romney; I didn't think that was possible until today.

The article on falsehoods reveals that Vice Presidential candidate Ryan in particular is a lying sack of shit, blaming the President for: not enacting the recommendations of the deficit commission Ryan himself torpedoed; the credit downgrade, caused by Republican intransigence in not raising the deficit cap; and the closing of an auto plant which occurred on President Bush's watch.

Quote of the month second runner up

Too many great quotes this month. Romney operative Neil Newhouse: "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."