September 2011

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace


I realized as I was putting the final touches to this issue that I had written nothing about the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Long-time readers know that I was under the towers that day just as the second plane hit, that i emerged from the sunbway and ran home to Brooklyn, that I volunteered to drive for the Red Cross and help bereaved families for Safe Horizons, and that I went to work on ambulances as a direct result of my experiences that day. For two or three years after, I wrote a series of essays called "Year Zero" analyzing the impacts on American life and politics. Why does the tenth anniversary mean so little to me? Partly because the memory, though still very important, is also very personal; partly because I don't relate to public celebrations; and maybe I do not trust the people who make them.

The debt limit shoot out

Hang in with me for a thought experiment about the Tea Party-driven debt limits confrontation which just ended. Let us imagine that the Tea Party's goal was both morally and pragmatically correct, in fact noble and laudable. For the sake of conducting our experiment in a specific, rather than vague context, let's say that the goal of all this politics and machination keep Boys Town open. (I am ignoring the likelihood that an actual Tea Party initiative would more likely be to cut the funding to Boys' Town as a liberal boondoggle and waste of tax money.) If we let the bad guys close Boys' Town, all those poor orphans will be on the streets, robbing people, selling their bodies, or starving to death. Also, Father Edward will be out of a job, and will probably die of heartbreak. No, we have to keep Boys' Town open!

Well, of course there are a number of ways to do that. The method most consistent with compassion and big-heartedness (for a noble, compassionate, big-hearted cause it is) would be a rally like the one at the end of "Its a Wonderful Life", where we each bring our crumpled dollar bills to make up the shortfall.

That's not what the Republicans did in the debt fight. They seized my wife, an innocent passerby, held a (constitutionally protected) semi-automatic weapon with extended clip to her head, and said, "If you do not keep Boys' Town open, we will shoot this woman."

What the fuck am I talking about? Here's what the fuck: my wife collects social security. We did not know, last week, whether her social security transfer would arrive, if the Tea Party forced the government to default on its obligations. If we didn't get that money, it would have been very hard to buy any groceries this month. So the Tea Party, immediately, enthusiastically and without a second thought, used my wife and millions like her as a hostage to get its way.

The point is that the end doesn't justify the means. It doesn't matter how great the cause; you do not get to hold a gun to my wife's head. The fact that the Tea Party, and the conservative Republican Congresscritters they either own or have cowed into submission, don't care who they have to throw off a cliff to get their way, is the ultimate statement about the emptiness and amorality of the cause, and the people who believe in it.

Who are the Republican voters?

Which leads us to a conundrum that's been bothering hell out of me since the 2008 crash: who votes Republican? The country seems almost evenly split between the parties right now.

Here are the people I know are Republicans: the billionaire Koch Brothers, Dick Cheney, Justices Thomas and Scalia. Most people working on Wall Street, making a quarter million to millions of dollars a year. But there aren't enough of those people to win an election (though there are more than enough to buy an election).

I imagine that people with good if more modest jobs in old fashioned companies in Iowa and other lower cost, traditional parts of the country are also Republicans. People who have good health insurance that their employers pay for in full or almost.

I suspect some Republicans--maybe the majority of the voters--are people who have nothing, who have never had health insurance, who can't imagine what it would be like having it, who think its some kind of new-fangled government invention being forced on them. If I am right about this, it is worth noting that this is essentially the same mentality that leads third world, usually Islamist insurgencies like the Shabab to kill foreign health workers who are trying to inoculate children against polio.

The best I can figure out, is that the only people who should be voting Republican--by this I mean not a moral imperative, but that they are thoughtful if repugnant people advancing their own self interest--are the rich and super-rich. If half the electorate is voting Republican right now, millions of us are being tricked, into voting for a party that doesn't care if we are crushed and destroyed, by unemployment, mortgage default, or simply by having a heart attack without health insurance. It astonishes me that people, suckered by talk of "socialism" and "spending", are voting against jobs, home ownership and health. What have the Republicans even proposed that will make sure you make a living, can own a house or have affordable health care in fifteen years' time? Merely cutting spending won't do it.

My new underworld

I am working a temporary job right now doing document review. The people here are all admitted attorneys who lost full time "transactional" jobs or never found one after law school. We are being paid $28 to $40 an hour, to look at 1000+ documents a day on the screen of a computer, identifying if they are responsive to a subpoena. And, as a few conversations in the days I have been here have established, nobody in this world has health insurance.

Now, even $28 a hour annualizes to $56,000, and closer to $70,000 because the jobs are all ten and twelve hour days and Saturdays (in some you work twelve or more hours seven days a week, as I am right now). People making $40/hour have the chance to make $100,000 with overtime.

But even a small New York apartment is $2000-$3000 a month. Add on groceries, electricity, student loan payments (one of my coworkers is carrying a staggering $200,000 in student debt), any credit card debt, and the costs associated with raising children: I am meeting people who cannot afford the additional cost of a $1300 monthly premium for jhealth insurance for themselves and their spouse. Who pray not to get sick. Who cannot make it in New York City, living modestly with no extravagance, on $100,000 a year.

One lawyer gave another advice: get a bank to loan you the money to repay your student loans. The latter can't be discharged in bankruptcy, but an ordinary loan can. A banker overhearing this would be shocked, but why should she be? There is a growing perception among those alert enough to notice the clouds over the sun, that we are now on opposite sides of a class war. If the bankers will stop at nothing, have conducted every rapacious deception imaginable, from where derives our moral responsibility to protect them?

Talking about the London riots, some of the attorneys were joking sourly about smashing up the property, not of middle class shopkeepers as rioters tend to do, but of the people who designed mortgage backed securities and put us here. There is bitter rage, in this group who was told that if they borrowed money to attend law school, they had a ticket to a middle class life, the three bedroom house in the burbs and the nice car in the driveway. They understand now it was a scam. "We know we will never be able to retire," several people told me. The most heart-breaking conversation was with a man my age, a former litigation attorney, who said, "This is not my country any more."

The S&P downgrade

I don't know what the practical effect will be of Standard and Poor downgrading US debt but the symbolic effects are enormous. We are on our way to being a second rate country, not to be consummately trusted on money issues, which also (by no coincidence), can't educate its people, take care of its elderly, provide health care for the masses. or repair its roads and bridges.

London riots

The London riots, as idiotic, self destructive and opportunistic as they are, are what happens when you push poor people to the wall. When they realize that they are objects, mere things the billionaire class would like to buy some products and pay some rent, and also fight some wars, while otherwise suffering and dying privately and uncomplainingly; when people are given no reason to have any investment in or connection to the nation; when they no longer believe that a rising tide will lift their boat, along with everyone else's; violence becomes a way to punish the billionaire class for underestimating them, to call attention to the fact they are there and alive.

It will happen here soon, as it has not in decades. A new black and Latino middle class which was created via home ownership in the past twenty years has now had its license revoked, as the homes went into foreclosure. It was a very cruel tease, and just one of the many stunning reminders that the people creating mortgaged backed securities were playing with real human lives. It was reported last week that the difference in average wealth between American whites and blacks and Latinos has returned to pre-war levels of a ratio of 18 or 20 to 1.

The Norwegian shootings

There is almost nothing to say. Seventy young people of all ethnicities who were being groomed for leadership positions in the left-leaning governing party were murdered by a gunman who kept reloading and firing for an hour before the police arrived. Unlike the US, where we expect violence every minute and respond rapidly with superior force, the cops had no plan in place, no methodology for responding to such an attack. I am also a little surprised, though I should not be, by the mind of a man who can keep killing unarmed people for that length of time without bogging down in any confusion or shame. Who was photographed afterwards smiling, proud of having achieved his goals. Finally, there was a really clueless Times op ed a day or two later by a Norwegian writer, who imagined saying to the killer, is that the best you could do? Besides challenging future mass murderers to do even "better", such a statement is of course terribly disrespectful to the dead.


President Obama is a moderate Republican of the old school, probably somehwat to the right of Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe.

I will vote for him again over even Mitt Romney any day, let alone Michele Bachman.

But (and I am encouraged by the bitterness and radicalism of the temp lawyers I am meeting, who twenty years ago would have been the epitome of good little centrist Republicans and Democrats) I am again hopeful for the rise of a new party, which will come from the left, will overtake the existing ones by speaking for those who are being oppressed and crushed today. As the Democrats no longer do.

Infuriating software

I wanted to do the simplest of operations. I had written the first few paragraphs of this column on another computer and emailed them to myself. I wanted to open the attachment and save it to disk. I couldn't.

I am running Firefox and AVG security software on an HP Mini under Windows 7. When I click on my email attachment, up comes a "Downloads" screen which indicates the file is being scanned by viruses. So far so good.

Once this has happened, nothing more does. The operation I launched, saving my file to disk, does not proceed. I have to click on the filename a second time in the "Downloads" screen. Up comes a new Firefox window displaying my file. I must click "Save as" and assign a filename: but what results is not my file as I made it, but someone's (Mozilla's? Microsoft's?), ideas of what I should have wanted my hand-coded HTMl to look like. My apostrophes aren't good enough; four or five characters of gibberish are substituted.

More egregiously: I had forgotten to close italics in a paragraph. The saved file now had the "open italics" code repeated in every subsequent paragraph, so I had to spend minutes deleting it. Message to software makers: I want to be able to perform very simple operations without wrestling with your software's good intentions. Similarly, I want to be able to write the word "play" without Open Office or Word guessing I mean "playwright".

What is government for?

We need government to protect the mass of us against the billionaires, and to ameliorate those aspects of free markets which lead to our impoverishment. Tea Party types want minimal government so the billionaires can act unimpeded. The rest is lies.


There have over the years been many moderate, realistic, flexible Republicans; though many of these today, like John McCain, have had to renounce their independence and values, to impersonate or become demagogues in order to survive politically. But every once in a while, a figure emerges who is just plain villain, an unabashed ideological crusader for bad, disruptive causes.

Governor Rick Scott of Florida, former hospital executive on whose watch a $1.7 billion Medicare fraud occurred, is such a villain. He has sued to overturn health insurance reform (and obtained a district court decision that the whole law must fall). He has turned away federal health insurance grants, is refusing even to create the exchange the law mandates must be instututed by 2014. And he recently sponsored a law which makes it illegal for a doctor to ask a patient of there are guns at home.

This last is a wonderful ethical spectacle: free speech for billionaires, but not for doctors.

My naivete about Cato

In the nineties, I wrote two briefing papers on First Amendment topics, for pay, for the Cato Instutute, one on the "pervasiveness" doctrine, and the second on anonymity. At the time, I naively believed that Cato was a purely ideological insitution, ideas in a vacuum, whose views perfectly coincided with mine on civil liberties, while radically different on economic matters. I now know that Cato was co-founded by billionaire Charles Koch in 1977 (I had never heard of him at the time I wrote) and is one of numerous institutions today providing intellectual covering fire for billionaire activities wholly inimical to American democracy. I did not realize at the time how my two papers fit completely within the Cato mission. The pervasiveness paper supported the proposition that the FCC should not regulate the content of television broadcasts (which would make Rupert Murdoch very happy). The anonymity paper drew on a rich tradition in American jurisprudence of protection of small speakers (you do not need to reveal your name in opposing the school board of your small town) but fits perfectly within the structure which led to the "Citizens United" decision which held that billionaires can spend millions anonymously, influencing or (really purchasing) political outcomes.

Later--Now that I have actually read the 168 page "Citizens United" decision, I must correct a mild mis-statement. The majority actually upheld a section of the law requiring disclosure of the organization financing the campaign-related speech (in this case, a documentary about Hilary Clinton). Justice Thomas alone, breaking with Scalia for once, said in a dissent that this requirement should have been thrown out too. However, effective anonymity still exists for billionaires: only the bland name "Citizens United" needed to be disclosed, and not that of the actual billionaires funding it. The American political world is now dominated by 501(c)(4) organizations, which are not required to publish the names of their contributors.

My ravings about billionaires

I am afraid that long time Spectacle readers may think I am becoming simple-minded. Never in seventeen years have I devoted so much attention to the activities of a particular class of people. Am I becoming a conspiracy theorist? I think I am belatedly, and realistically, focusing on a trend dangerous to democracy which has come to the fore with the real estate bubble collapse. One way in which I may have erred: I haven't really said that some of the wealthy have come down a peg or more in that debacle (failure of Lehman and all that). Some of the the super-rich have in fact harmed themselves, and each other, with their gambles. I will try to make it clear that I do not believe they are a completely unitary, magically powerful bloc, the way Hofstader's exemplars of the "paranoid trend" see Freemasons, Catholics or the Trilatersal Commission. Billionaires are flawed people who become dangerous when they use their money to warp the system out of shape.,

Health insurance as a percentage of income

I remember the old advice that your rent should not constitute more than 25% of your income. The othert day, I asked myself for the first time what percentage of income should be devoted to your health insurance premiums. A quick Google search did not quite answer the question, but led to several articles which viewed with alarm people spending more than 10% of income on health care.

The health insurance premiums my wife and I pay are about a fifth to a quarter of our income. This is, of course, not our entire health spending: we have substantial deductibles between us, plus co-pays and the cost of medication, which in a bad year might dictate that half or more of our income would go to health matters--if we stayed in network. And we are relatively healthy people.

No wonder that middle class people are relinquishing health insurance. I have had to take a job simply to be able to pay our $1272 premium---which, given the huge deductibles, protects against very little in the way of normal health expense. We almost had to leave New York just to find insurance we could afford. When the need to have health insurance starts driving decisions about work and where to live, there is something seriously wrong.

Note to Central Falls, R.I.

And those other cities which are cutting or canceling pensions, while protecting bondholders in full:

Your bond-holders knowingly took a risk of loss, which they are almost all able to bear. Cops, firefighters and administrative employees who worked for you for decades, were not knowingly engaging in any risk, and are unable to bear cuts in their pension to only $10,000 a year, an amount on which no-one can live in America.

Shame on you. Morally, you are no better than Bernie Madoff or the most common con artist. You have stolen not only money, but lives.


My cell phone died and I went to Verizon to replace it. There was a picket line of the Communications Workers of America. I asked their permission to enter the store, and it was freely granted. "WE're just giving them a hard time," one man said.

Verizon, in a year of record profits, is trying to make the workers contribute more to their health insurance, cutting pension, and diminishing job security. The trend that started when Reagan decimated the air traffic controllers is continuing strongly and violently thirty years later: unions have become shadows of themselves. The saddest element is that the Tea Party types have successfully turned the rest of the middle class against the unions--why should they have anything the rest of us don't? Getting the subject class fighting each other, instead of the people harming us all, is the oldest trick in the book.

I have always had concerns with unions, with feather-bedding, with corruption, with the demands that went so far beyond protecting workers that they effectively ended the freight business in New York City. Maybe by believing the latter, I was effectively falling for the anti-union hype, though. When the billionaire class takes the work to cheaper climes, do we blame them or the workers who demanded a better wage? Today, it is apparent to me that we must do anything needed to stand together and protect ourselves against those who are trying to prevent us from living safely and comfortably. I am on the side of the CWA strikers and hope the best for them.

A new radical class

Educated people--doctors, lawyers, engineers, graduate students--have always played a leading role in every revolutionary movement, including those supposedly led by workers. As I discovered in the document review world, current conditions are causing tens of thousands of highly educated and indebted lawyers, who would have been contented mainstream citizens twenty years ago, to feel cheated and embittered. I heard things said about this country I haven't heard since the march on Washington in 1971. Creating an enraged and disenfranchised class of smart, capable people is not a good long term strategy for the powers that be. I think a hard rain is gonna fall in the next twenty years.

Why destroy the middle class?

Something still doesn't scan. If I had read a science fiction book, back in the'70's, in which America turns on its own great middle class and begins to eliminate it, I would never have believed it.

Although it has only become patently obvious to me what is happening, these last two years or so, I understand it as a process which has been going on for thirty years or so, since the Reagan administration. I can now in retrospect see a lot of the incidents and accidents which formed part of the class war: Reagan's destruction of the air traffic controllers' union, for example, was a major landmark. But I also remember now two reports in New York magazine, one entitled "Going Broke In New York on $100,000 A Year", which I thought frivolous at the time, and another advising that children who grew up in Westchester or Easthampton could not expect to return to those neighborhoods to live, as adults.

Several times in my life, I have been engaged in dire battles I did not seek, for example when some businessmen who sought me out, cultivated me, and bought my company, terminated me from it ten months later. In those situations, the energy you bring to the battle has as a backdrop a very aggravating idea: "I was minding my own business. You came looking for me, to lie to me and rob me, and now I will fight back with every iota of energy I have." I hate to fight, but I refuse to lie down for people who go miles out of their way to find me and harm me.

Life in America today feels similar. We were living quietly, as a loyal and unquestioning American middle class, and some billionaires whose names we didn't even know, came looking for us to take our wealth, our security,our retirement funds, our homes and jobs away. What were they thinking? They were already worth billions; were the additional billions worth the destruction of a vital American class, and the infliction of so much suffering on those previously poor and the newly impoverished? Was it a plan or did it happen by accident, as a result of some other machination they didn't clearly foresee would destroy the middle class? I can't really believe that, just because its been going on for so long. The Times has been reporting at least a decade that the gap between rich and poor was getting wider in this country. It is ironic and sad that I, along with everyone else, imagined that did not mean the middle class too would be pulled into that divide. I merely thought we would stay right where we were, while the people above us rose and those below us sank. But it doesn't work that way.

Where are the Democrats?

Another revelation has been how weak and quiet the Democrats have been in defending their traditional constituencies, the workers, the unions and the mindful liberal Eastern and far Western middle class that remembers its origins. I think the reason is partly that, as I have written here before, the Republicans have captured the debate, even chosen or created the vocabulary, to the extent the Democrats, even when in a majority, ran scared of being identified as liberals. Now we have the spectacle of a President too easily co-opted, who seems to be glorying in cutting entitlements instead of creating jobs. It leads me to wonder, in a country in which it now costs one billion dollars to win a presidential election, if the Democrats themselves must steer much closer to the people who give them the money, and only appear to support those whom they need to vote for them.

My new Android

My old and very antiquated cell phone split in half. I decided the time had finally come to do something I had avoided for several years, and upgrade to a smart phone.

I have been working as a temporary lawyer. Recruiters today do not use the telephone, something I find rather shocking, as we used to joke that the salespeople would have the phone surgically implanted as soon as the technology became available. They email you and if you don't respond in about ten minutes, they move on.

I am not a gadget guy but my new Verizon phone with the Android operating system is a rather delightful gadget. Old cell phones were the walkie talkies of my childhood dreams--or the Hardy Boy wrist radio--but smart phones are decidedly a science fiction gadget, capable of so much more than communications. They are also GPS devices, and I have already read a book on mine, and downloaded an amazing app called "Google Sky Maps" which tells you what constellations, stars and planets reside in any direction in which you point the phone.

I realized in exploring the phone's capabilities that I have a lot more affection and trust for Google than I do for Microsoft or, say, Hewlett Packard, companies of two distinct older generations which have had decades to fall into habits of greed and lose sight of quality. MIcrosoft, of course, has had that problem almost from its beginnings. Google, a more recent invention, is a surprising innovator. it was not inuitive that the company which brought us the best search environment would also involve itself in cellphones or driverless cars.

The phone is generally well designed, and once I got used to tapping and swiping, works pretty smoothly. I have just two design complaints. One serious one is that in certain apoplications, such as the Market listing available software for download, swiping to scroll the screen with my clumsy fingers constantly launches unwanted applications. I was also disturbed to find that a feature I thought universal to cell phones has been removed from some of the latest Android phones: you cannot use the volume control on the side to silence the phone when you are in the office or at the movies. But this was easily solved by the download of a simple app called "Toggle Silent".

The other danger signal was that you must have a Gmail account to operate an Android. This feels a bit like tying of products in the old anti-trust law sense. I wonder how far it is from there to the attitude exemplified by the famous Microsoft memo: "The OS isn't done til Lotus won't run."

Warren Buffett

Thank you, Warren Buffett. Writing on the op ed page of the August 15 New York Times, the billionaire investor is the first to acknowledge that higher taxes don't cause people of his wealth to stop investing and creating jobs. And opines there will be no recovery without increasing the taxes on the super-rich. I was waiting for someone in that class with a sense of responsibility to step forward and state the obvious. This country has been far better to them than to most of us, and who wouldn't feel a nagging responsibility to give something back in an emergency? So far, he's the only one.


You probably think I am having a slow day if I write about the ethics of television.

I currently do not follow any television series. (My wife and I sometimes watch reruns of old familiar comedy shows in the evening before falling asleep.) Earlier in adult life, I sometimes tried to keep track of as many as seven hour-long dramatic series.

Yesterday, I googled the last three I had tried to follow, and confirmed they were all cancelled: Science fiction series "Caprica" and "Flashforward" and an EMT show, "Trauma". None of the shows had acquired the requisite audience to be renewed; two at least were narrative series left unresolved, so that the people who faithfully showed up effectively wasted their time and will never know how the story came out.

We regard this as the norm in the television world, and (aside from a few notorious campaigns which save cult favorites for a year or so) don't complain that much. But one of the peculiarities of the television world is exactly the serial format. Before the British became addicted to endless serials the way we are, they better understood the beauty of the mini-series: tell a story in two or sixteen installments; don't withhold any; end it and move on to something else.

If shows run long enough, inevitably the story-telling fails. The worst criminal in that respect was "X-Files", which in order to stay on the air an inordinate amount of time, completely abandoned the "mythology" plot line in which so many of us had invested years of our lives. But the phenomenon of getting us to watch narrative shows, and then cancelling them without finishing the story, is an ethical breach too, even if it is business as usual. Because I am drawn to quirky, marginal shows, most of the series I have ever watched ("Earth II", "Space Above and Beyond", "Carnivale" and the beat goes on) were untimely cancelled.

My response to this has been to decide I will wait to watch any show which interests me until it has finished its five or seven year run. I haven't seen a single episode of "Lost". What happens then is that the necessary time to watch years of a show in a marathon, or even over months or years, seems so substantial, I don't end up making the effort.

A better mousetrap

They make little plastic traps now which catch the mouse alive (for bleeding heart liberals). They are cleverly designed, very low tech: the mouse's weight causes the lid to shut. Then, just when you think you've acted ethically by not killing the mouse, you confront another dilemma: where do you release a mouse in a crowded suburban neighborhood? Do you actually have an ethical obligation to your neighbors to kill the mouse after all?

The Koch Brothers

I woke wondering why the Koch brothers don't want the middle class to exist. And immediately thought of Primo Levi's story. Awake one night when the train taking him to Auschwitz stopped at a siding, suffering terribly from thirst, he reached out through a gap in the wooden side of the railway car for an icicle outside. A passing guard saw him, and took away the icicle just as his numb fingers grasped it. "Why?" Levi gasped. "Er is kein warum hier," the man replied. "There is no why here."

HP Mini antics

I have never despised a computer as much as the HP Mini, which seems more than merely negligently constructed, but to be actually malicious at times. A dialog box labeled "HP Assistant" jut annoyingly materialized over the Notepad as I wrote this, and would not allow itself to be closed or minimized. It claimed that, if I clicked, I would receive a recommendation as to how I could improve my user experience. What could it possibly tell me? "Buy a Dell"?

Later--I read this week that HP will spin off its PC business. And thought, "Of course you are."

The Texas "miracle"

Governor Rick Perry presided over a period in Texas' economic history when more oil was found and extracted via new "fracking" technology (from under schools, among other places). He couldn't really create or affect that via policy (except not to get in the way of the drilling). Companies also moved jobs there from other states due to low taxes and other incentives, something he could affect by policy. But how does he plan to repeat that at the national level? He would have to discover oil (or some other extractable resource) in New York and Dubuque, and steal jobs from Canada and Mexico.

Rick Perry is an ignorant and mean demagogue from a state customized by and for such people. The battle of the most profound importance that is taking place right now is, quite simply, to determine whether the United States shall also be a place where such people can thrive, at the national level.


David Cameron's gibe that rioters have no concept of "responsibility" is particularly resonant, in fact odorous, given his evasion of any responsibility for his government's infiltration by Rupert Murdoch--and also by Murdoch's failure to take any responsibility for the phone hacking and bribery which was ubiquitous at his newspapers. Who exactly is modeling responsibility for the British underclass?

Bitter joke

In 1980, when I graduated law school, young lawyers worked massive hours, gave up sleep and weekends, had no time to devote to hobbies, relaxation, or even relationships, and made themselves the slaves of older, more established lawyers, because the possibility of a partnership in a law firm hung twinkling in the distant skies seven years out. Thirty-two years later, as I know from doing temporary document review gigs, attorneys of all ages make exactly the same sacrifices--so they can buy groceries and have a roof over their heads.

Foreigners teaching us a thing or two

I was entertained by the story of the young foreigners who walked out of the Hershey factory where they were being exploited. It takes people from China, India and elsewhere to hold a demonstration in this country, while the rest of us watch "Real Housewives" and scratch instant lottery tickets.

Standard and Poor investigation

The Department of Justice is investigating Standard and Poor for ratings issued during the mortgage bubble...but the company rates US debt and in fact just downgraded it. Conflict? Maybe the US should recuse itself and let a nation which is not rated by the agency carry on. Cuba?

And to think...

There was a time I thought about folding the Spectacle because there would soon be nothing more to write about.


I was surprised and delighted, when I went to rent an apartment recently, to find I have no credit rating. Not a bad one: none. I haven''t used credit in years. No mortgage, no home equity loan, no credit cards. The best part is I was able to rent the apartment anyway, by establishing I have assets. I thought of Eliot:

Therefore the man with heavy eyes
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,

Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in...

That's who I want to be: outside, leaning in.

Google sky maps

This free Android app is the most delightful example of pure technological inventiveness I have seen since the 1980's. It puts a sky map on the screen of your phone which shows you what stars, planets and nebula exist in the direction in which you point the phone. (That's how I discovered that the train I was on the other night was pointed at Uranus (a facebook status update to which nobody, probably wisely, responded.)

While the sky map is probably mainly intended for amateur astronomers looking up at a dark, starry night with minimal light pollution--so you can confirm that the constellation you are admiring is in fact Andromeda--I turned it on the other day at the end of ten hours of mind-killing document review work, in a tacky little windowless room full of bitter attorneys clicking away at terminals. To remember there are stars, and to glory in seeing them dance upon the screen.

That set my imagination free. I imagined the Android phone becoming an actual android, with arms pushing my old driveless telescope into place to view the object I specified. Then I thought, the phone itself can become the telescope. Instead of the lovely but minimal graphics, as I turn the phone let it display the output fromn an actual telescope somewhere. Finally, I imagined a bank of digital cameras, built by Google, imaging the entire sky at once, and feeding the images to phones everywhere. Want to look at the Orion Nebula in real time, so to speak? Point the phone and see a magnification of an actual image.


How about a computer that consisted only of a tiny CPU you wear as a ring? Which can project its keyboard on the airplane or train tray table, and the terminal on the seat-back in front of you?

My Android phone proves that a computer needs no moving parts. The vestigial buttons along the bottom of its case could just as easily be screen icons.

The two party system inane. When people get mad enough at one party, the only choices are to vote for them anyway, or to abstain (two hopeless choices) or to vote for the other guys, who may have nothing to do with anything you believe or hope for (even worse). I am enraged with the Democrats, but will never be self destructive enough to vote for the Republicans, who will happily count my vote towards a claimed mandate they would use to finish the dismantlement of the middle class. I long for a parliamentary system, in which we had five or six parties, and even quite small ones were sometiums needed to help form governing majorities. Where the fluidity and flexibility of the system would drive us towards compromise and practical solutions, not extremism and grandstanding.

Eyewitness testimony

When I went to law school thirty-five years ago, we spent a lot of time in criminal law class discussing the inadequacies of eyewitness testimony, which at that time was already known to have oonvicted many innocent people. After the advent of DNA, most of the people who have been freed were put away as a result of bad eyewitness identification.

The highest court in New Jersey, which apparently is a leader in criminal law jurisprudence in this country, has now recognized these problems, and put some guidelines in place both for conducting line-ups and for evaluating the weight of eyewitness identification at trial.

Eyewitnesses pointing to the defendant is good theater, but not a very good basis for depriving people of liberty or life.