November 2012

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Rags and Bones

By Jonathan Wallace

Iran's currency

Think about the fact that the currency of Iran, our worst ideological enemy on the planet aside from North Korea, trades against the dollar, and is experiencing rapid devaluation due to our sanctions, and you will understand how perfectly capitalism has captured the entire planet, even those nations who profess to have nothing to do with it. There is virtually no-one who wants to kill us who does not need to trade with us as well.

A letter

Dear HP: This morning at about nine I sat down at my HP Mini to do some work I undertook, updating some encyclopedia articles I wrote twelve years ago. Forty minutes have now elapsed spent managing the computer--attempting to get to the gmail folder in which I had stored the articles, failing, restarting the computer, watching the endless circling symbol as the computer grinds away going nowhere. During which time I have gotten no actual work done. I am still stunned how a respectable and ancient company such as yours managed to put its name on a defective piece of garbage such as the Mini, one which is inadequate for the most basic tasks for which the Morrow MicroDecision I used in 1984 was highly competent: opening a text file and working on it.

Surely it is not an impossible goal to make a computer that is almost instantly available when turned on? I remember with nostalgia the C> prompt that came up immediately on the Morrow and my first PC. The Mini and my other recent PC's seem to need to do some mysterious work, without giving me any kind of status report, for nearly ten minutes after being turned on. I have a PC which, after a while, gives me a message it can't find the Internet, and that's how I know its connected to the Internet. The netbook, even more lamentably, must give me a silly inventory of products I never bought which it cannot find. I have perfectly good virus protection, but not the product HP apparently wanted me to buy.

Its now 9:50 and I am trying to get back on to Gmail, so I can again look for the files I first searched for 50 minutes ago.

I blame not only HP, but the Net itself, or rather the overlapping design of the network, the web sites that run on it, and companies like Microsoft which design applications which reach across it. Microsoft memorably once turned off Office when I tried to update it on a laptop I bought used in a store--I had never been given a key to enter, and maybe the laptop copy was pirated, shame on the store owner. But think about the philosophy which configures a network and applications so that a monstrously large company like Microsoft can reach out to the laptop of a single individual like me to turn off an application. Is it any wonder we can't keep viruses out, if Microsoft doesn't want to be kept out? How can viruses be excluded when every web site wants to place cookies on your drive, run applications there,and install scripts you are not even aware of, serving unknown purposes? Not only is privacy gone, so is integrity and efficiency. Every computer I have owned in a decade is slow and buggy, and I blame those unknown applications and scripts.

Very sincerely, Jonathan

Putin's brainstorm

The U.S.S.R., like all autocracies, aspired to be a traditional oligarchy, in which its entrenched apparatchiks could become obscenely personally wealthy from the resources and people they managed. At some point they had the epiphany that the Marxist ideology, rather than advancing their goals, had become a brake on the system. So they preserved all of the elements of that system while jettisoning the ideology, leading to U.S.S.R. II, the Russian nation under Putin today, which evinces all the same dishonesty and cruelty without any talk of dialectical materialism.

The debates

I don't watch debates. I already know who I'm voting for, and the spectacle of the dynamics of the race changing from instant to instant--he's up! he's down!--is a foolish and uncomfortable one. So, not having seen his supposedly lamentable performance at the first debate, I suspect what happened to Obama was a conviction, "I am the president, just let me do the damn job, what do I have to dance around or pretend to box for?" Silly folk want a presidential candidate to be able to talk trash like Muhammad Ali, even if he's already president. And that was never what Barack Obama was about.

Arlen Specter

His obituary this month left out one anecdote. When he briefly ran for president, he was the only Republican not invited to address the Christian Coalition, then one of king-makers of the party. Because he was Jewish. Its redolent of the terrible moral compromise any good, sensitive person had to make to live within the Republican party. Yes, there are compromises being a Democrat too--that's why I no longer am--but they are not as stark and harmful as that.

In support of bullying

The American Family AsSociation, a vile group with a bland name which occupies approximately the same ecological niche as the Christian Coalition, has taken a stand against anti-bullying programs in schools, on the theory that--wait for it--they promote a homosexual lifestyle. Let's follow the logic: the programs protect gay kids, among others, against bullying; if we can't bully gay children, other kids may think its all right to be gay. Sheesh; the kind of initiative which can only be produced by people so bigoted that, in the conference room in which they decide these things, not a single participant is capable of hearing how they will sound to the majority of Americans.

Reverse mortgages

Reverse mortgages seemed at one time like a fairly benign way for older people to leverage the equity in their homes to supplement their incomes. Now, like any other variation on the mortgage theme (not to mention on 401(k), stock trading and any other scheme involving ordinary Americans investing their money), reverse mortgages are revealed to be a way in which brokers preyed on unsophisticated individuals, persuading them to put mortgages in the name of the older spouse alone (higher commission) so that America is now full of surviving spouses being evicted from their homes. There is nobody Wall Street won't devour, given a complete lack of government regulation.

The campaign

For years, there was a truism that newspaper campaign coverage was never about the candidates' substantive beliefs, but only about who looked or sounded better, who used what surprising tactic or made which embarassing gaffe. There is still a lot of that; but it seems as if there is also lot more coverage, at least in the Times, regarding who believes what, so you can at last judge the candidates everywhere on their competing ideologies and agendas.

Romney's abortion ad

Undecided female voters appear to be crucial in this election. So Romney is releasing an ad in which a woman tells the camera that she has studied Romney's abortion record, and its not so bad! He still favors abortion in the case of rape or incest! This is the moral equivalent of an imaginary Goldwater ad in 1964 in which a black man says he has studied the candidate's record, and yeah, he favors apartheid, but not actual violence!


At ten after five, I arrived at the Astoria post office to mail my tax payment, and an employee was not letting anyone new join the line. "So I have to go to the 24 hour post office on 34th Street?" a man ahead of me asked. I did that once, years ago, and waited for hours in order to mail my taxes by the midnight deadline. This time, instead, I simply deposited my envelope in the mailbox outside, knowing that it would be postmarked at nine in the morning the day after tax day. IRS is welcome to charge me nine hours' interest on $345 if it must; whatever that comes to is less than the value of the time I would waste at 34th Street (we all seem to make a lot of decisions in which we don't take into account the value of our time). It left me wondering why everyone is so frantic to meet IRS deadlines: is it simply a rageful refusal to pay even a few pennies in interest or penalties? The fear of being in trouble, perhaps of being singled out for audit because a payment is late? Or is it UDO (unquestioning deadline obedience)?

Binders of women

A memorable visual from Mitt Romney: the "binders of women" presented to him upon his accession as Massachusetts governor. It would be fascinating to graph that thought process step by step: the cascading near-instantaneous choices that caused him to focus on, to blurt out "binder" instead of saying something about the intelligent, capable women he actually appointed.

The courts and democracy

Voter ID is losing everywhere. Bigotry against gay people is losing everywhere. The next step in the drama will be to see what happens when appeals reach the Supremes, when Scalia and Thomas have an opportunity to opine on what the circuit courts have said. We may be living in a time when the Supreme Court is so much less, in terms of intellect and justice, than the courts which sit below it.


In "God's Jury", a book about the Inquisition and its modern effects (reviewed in my Colchicine column this month), Cullen Murphy notes that iguanas are a protected species in Guantanamo as in the United States, buildings are designed with the Americans with Disabilities Act in mind, and signs warning against sexual harassment are posted in hallways. The base is only foreign territory as far as the Fourth and Fifth Amendments are concerned, it seems.