September 2013

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace


The insensate harm done to analog works by digitizing them without the supervision of a human is an old anathema; why is it still happening so rampantly in the world? I almost exclusively am reading public domain e-books these days. Most are scanned versions, which are delightful. Other than an occasional missed page, these versions give both a sense of the original volume, some imagination of what it would be like to hold the 1898 edition in your hands, carefully turn the pages. Many even have the highlighting and margin notes of readers who themselves inhabit a nostalgic past.

However, many ebooks are machine-produced from OCR scans of the analog and are really not OK. I am reading Joseph Conrad's Nostromo and it is full of errors such as "oat" for "out" and even "b" for the word "a". Some of these mistakes are such gibberish I cannot reverse engineer the meaning of the original so am reading Conrad's prose "through a glass darkly".

Facial scanning

In my recent essay, "Total Surveillance World", I didn't mention facial scanning technology, in which photographs of crowds can be examined to determine the identity of people in them. The trend is that both government and business know where we are at all times, what we are doing or seeking; while business' motive is to sell us more products and services, it is required, surreptitiously, to provide the information to government when requested, without our knowledge. In an age, as exemplified by New York's billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, when the public/private distinction is eroding back to the nonexistence it had in the medieval era, what we are facing is oligarchy without privacy.


The terrible events in Egypt are being reported almost without context: what has happened to the people who occupied Tahrir and brought down Mubarak? Have they been jailed or exiled? Are they in hiding? Are any of them supporting the army or the Islamists?

With the death of narrative and context in story telling and reporting, every chapter in history is communicated if it were sui generis, as if yesterday did not exist.


The Times for August 21 had a front page article on 501(c)(4) nonprofits, including some liberal ones, which are fighting to maintain the anonymity granted by the execrable Citizens United case at the state level. For example, abortion rights groups want to receive anonymous donations. The problem is that once we go down that slippery slope, there is no legal argument you can fashion which grants anonymity to donations to pro-abortion or anti-gun groups only, while denying it to the financial machinations of the billionaire Koch brothers.

The FISA Court

Though I knew of the existence of the secret intelligence court in Washington which was rumored at some point to have only once denied a warrant request, I didn't know that in its deliberations nobody actually had the job of representing the anti-warrant position. Even the Vatican hierarchy had a priest who played "devil's advocate" to argue against the canonization of every saint, but our government doesn't think it needs to go as far for fairness' sake. A secret, one-sided court degrades the whole concept of justice. It disturbs me that anyone who wanted to be a judge would agree to serve on it.

Greenwald and Assange

David Carr has a very intelligent piece in the August 26 Business section of the Times, describing the execration of Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald by "mainstream" journalists for their role in relaying the Manning and Snowden disclosures to the world. Carr recognizes what a favor they did us, how much more we know about our own government, and surmises it may be part jealousy; but it also is based in large part on the perception that the two men are activists, or bloggers, or anything but "real journalists".

The truth is that the press is not a protest moment, and rarely has been in its entire history. The designation "the Fourth Estate", coined in the nineteenth century by Thomas Carlyle, recognized that the press is an arm of government, at worst a scurrilous spokesman retailing lies, at best a check and balance on the other branches. Carr points out that some of the journalists who are most vocal against Assange and Greenwald (one disgustingly said he would welcome the drone strike which takes out Assange, a supposed free speaker calling for the killing of someone else for exercising freedom of speech) are the most captive, giving self-censorship in return for maintaining access to government.

Barrett Brown

A man who should be as famous as Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden is Barrett Brown, who is facing a century in prison in federal court in Texas for linking to an illegal site in a discussion of it,as many mainstream journalists have done. Our laws are tending back towards the horrible mess of the court of Louis XIV, where it was impossible to know in advance what speech acts would pass and which would cause you to be thrown into the Bastille. The ultimate secrecy is found in not telling anyone what the rules are, so that all speech is at your own risk.