November 2010

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

Christine O'Donnell

I am amused, but not surprised, that Christine O'Donnell is not actually campaigning in Delaware. Having surprised the Republicans by winning the primary, she has probably struck a deal with the powers that be responsible for infusing $2 million into her campaign: we will seek your election as a national media persona created by us. You stay incognito, and whatever you do, don't open your mouth in public. Delaware voters are used to meeting their candidates (one called aggressive local campaigning a "job interview"); hopefully they will not fall for this nonsense.


In 1984, I received my first desktop business computer, a Morrow Microdecision running the CP/M operating system. It had 265K of RAM and two floppy disk drives (for 5.25 inch disks). There was no hard drive. When I wanted to type a document, I inserted the disk containing my word processing app, Wordstar, in the A: drive, and the disk to which I saved my document in the B: drive.

That computer was faster, easier to use and more efficient than any PC I have owned in recent years, and I miss it. There was no user interface to speak of, just a command prompt, but I only had to learn ten or fifteen commands to do everything I needed. WordStar, which loaded and ran in the system's 256K of RAM, was able rapidly to do everything I still want a word processing application to do today. That computer never hung or crashed.

I was thinking about my Morrow Microdecision today as I tried to open this file on my HP Mini Netbook running Windows 7. Notepad hung for a full ten seconds or so before even allowing me to select the file I wanted. Every application I use on this computer--OpenOffice, Mozilla, ftp, AOL--regularly freezes for agonizing lengths of time. And this computer gets slower every time I use it for a few hours, until it displays a message that a script has slowed or stopped working. If I am using it for long enough, I inevitably have to restart the computer to get it to speed up.

Mysterious things happen every minute on PC's connected to the Internet. Sites you visit routinely place cookies on your drive, launch scripts, add plug ins to your browser, or even attempt intrusions. I accidentally typed "" yesterday, and was taken to a bogus survey, which asked credible questions about Youtube, offered imaginary prizes, asked for some personal info including my cell phone number--and launched an intrusion attempt blocked by Norton.

If you look at the list of programs running on your PC at any given moment, you won't recognize most of them unless you are a systemns administrator or far more technically savvy than the average person. Even with anti-virus software installed, you likely have some malware on your system--software using your PC's processing power for some unknown purpose. Even if it is not corrupting your files or otherwise harming you, it is slowing your system down.

Technology is frequently analogized as being an extension of the human body. If you think of a PC this way, then at any given moment strangers on the Internet feel perfectly free to place or remove clothing and rings, give it injections and even molest it.

Everything I have said about my HP computer applies to every PC I have owned in the last decade or so. Software has become huge, buggy and slow, compared to the 256K implementation of WordStar I used 26 years ago. Overall, the idea of the PC as an open system routinely manipulated in ways you don't even understand by every application, in fact by every distributor (Microsoft crippling an installation of Office on my Macbook when I upgraded it, and claiming my key was invalid), and every web site you visit--its a bad metaphor, bad business, and emphatically proves that more complex is not necessarily better where technology is concerned.

One of the commodity-technologies almost everyone owns, and never has to think about, is a toaster oven. With the controls set in a particular way, you will get the same result every time: your toast done to a certain level of golden-brownness, for example. If your toaster oven functioned like your PC, it would mysteriously vaporize your toast some of the time, while leaving it completely undone other times.

My Morrow Micro Decision was completely reliable, like a toaster oven. Any PC you buy today, is not.

Syphilis experiments

Dr. John Cutler, who later ran the infamous Tuskegee research back home, led a United States Public Health Service team which from 1946-48 infected unknowing Guatamalan prisoners with syphilis in order to research treatments with penicillin.

Meanwhile, the first of the Nuremberg trials had been of German doctors involved in human medical experimentation. It began December 1946 and ended in August 1947.

However, when I did some research in Wikipedia, rather than pinning down the dates of a one time ironic contrast, I found that cruel medical experiments on unwitting subjects in the U.S. have always taken place, beginning long before the Nazi era and continuing at least to the recent involvement of doctors in CIA waterboarding and other torture of Al Qaeda prisoners:


I am amused by the eternal resurgence of Friederich Hayek in libertarian and now Tea Party thought. How many of the people eagerly name-checking Hayek have actually read him? I have. Hayek actually believed government had a role in regulating markets. He said in "The Road to Serfdom":

To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition.

Hayek also noted that free market pricing fails when ""the damage caused to others by certain uses of property cannot be effectively charged to the owner of that property."

Nor can certain harmful effects of deforestation, of some methods of farming, or of the smoke and noise of factories be confined to the owner of the property in question or to those who are willing to submit to the danger for an agreed compensation. In such instances we must find some substitute for the regulation by the price mechanism.


Middle East Peace

The reason there hasn't been peace in the Middle East in seventy years is that no-one is sincerely interested in having it--at least not at the same moment the other party is. Right now, the PLO/West Bank contingent is probably more sincerely interested than the Israelis. If they were, extending the West Bank construction ban during the talks would seem like a no-brainer. Netanyahu's refusal to do so makes me wonder what there is to talk about.

The Rutgers Suicide

I try not to belabor issues here on which I feel I have nothing new to add. But there are wrinkles in the story of the Rutgers student driving his roommate to suicide which are worth mentioning.

He left a webcam pointed at the bed in their shared room, monitored from his girlfriend's computer, then posted the resulting video--of the roommate making out with a man--to the Web in real time.

A key issue in the ensuing prosecutions will be whether it is a hate crime. Was the victim singled out because he was gay or would the roommate have filmed him and posted it no matter whom he was with? From one point of view, every crime involves hatred; from another, not every gay nor minority victim is singled out for their status, as opposed to opportunistic location and vulnerability. I have written elsewhere how prosecutors, ambitious, political, or dangerously self-righteous, engage in a type of crime-escalation and invention. Prosecutions involving misuse of new technologies--like the cyber-bullying cases this one resembles--need to be conducted very carefully. New technologies don't usually create new crimes; they just provide new (sometimes faster, wider) platforms for old ones.

Michigan Assistant Attorney general

An assistant A.G. in Michigan is probably to be fired for hating a gay university activist so much he created a blog about him, and even showed up outside his home with a video camera in the small hours of the morning. This showed a stellar lack of judgment, and calls into question the man's ability to act fairly and impartially in his daily job. It also seems like the kind of "aberration" we are likely to increasingly see in the right's environment of barely disguised hatred. Don't believe me? Google the words "radical homosexual agenda" and see what kind of drivel pops up ("Make no mistake about it, those who espouse the radical homosexual agenda are in the same league as the atheistic tyrants of the 20th century. ...") The assistant A.G. could reasonably complain, "You told me to hate him, then you never said where the line was." The piousness of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich when people actually act on their prescriptions is an ethical spectacle.

Mortgage foreclosures

Banks can't begin to keep track of all the foreclosures they are processing. Executives are signing 400 affidavits a day, falsely swearing that they are personally familiar with the facts. In many cases, the bank can't find the underlying documents, or can't prove crucial terms of the transaction.

In some cases, two or more banks think they own the same property.

This extraordinary shoddiness is due to the fact that the banks forgot they were dealing with life and death issues pertaining to human beings. Even the villainous banker in "Its a Wonderful Life" personally knew the people he wanted to destroy. To modern day mega-banks, individual home-owners are less than pawns in a profit-game.

As a result, I feel no sympathy whatever for the bankers who stand to lose millions from the various foreclosure halts which are being ordered or agreed. If you greedily extended millions of bad and sloppily-documented loans, in order to package them and resell them to other idiots, I am happy to see you take your medicine now.

Israel and South Africa

I always found the semi-secret relationship between Isreal and apartheid-era South Africa to be agonizing, and I always knew it was based on something more than real-politik. It is little-remembered that Great Britain once offered the Zionists Uganda if they would shut up about Palestine, and that some (including their founder and leader, Theodor Herzl) wanted to accept. A Jewish state in Uganda would have been indistinguishable from South Africa by the 1940's or '50's.

The New York Review of Books for October 28 provided the following quote from Rafael Itan, former chief of the Israeli Defense Force, speaking to students in Tel Aviv back in the apartheid day: The black people of South Africa "want to gain control over the white minority, just like Arabs here want to gain control over us. And we, too, like the white minority in South Africa, must act to prevent them from taking us over."


Another essay in the October 28 New York Review suggests that a Republican majority in Congress might try to impeach Obama, as they did Clinton. This hit me with the emphatic "click" of a cast iron safe falling on my head from five stories: I hadn't thought of it, but it makes perfect sense. The Clinton impeachment set the precedent for the following proposition: impeachment is no longer a tool to be used in the rare case there have been "high crimes and misdemeanors" by the President. It is, instead, a tool to be used whenever there is a Democratic president and a Republican majority in Congress.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

A federal judge in California just ordered the military to stop enforcing the dismal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which has resulted in the involuntary dismissal of 14,000 people since it was instituted by Bill Clinton in 1993 ostensibly to protect gay people. This is a wonderful outcome, but what happens next will tell what kind of country we are. Republicans, backed by money and wielding substantial unelected power, will fight like wildcats to defeat this ruling, regardless of whether it is affirmed by the Supreme Court. Current tactics now include attempts at impeachment of judges, to send a message to others not to be independent and assertive in the future. There will be legislative attempts to overturn the judgment, and of course massive screaming about the "radical homosexual agenda" from the bloviators. America today has kind of a Weimar feel to me, as I wait for the hard rain that's gonna fall. It makes you wonder whether racial desegregation would have been possible, in today's environment.

North Korean succession

I love the fact that Kim Jong Il's oldest son and presumed successor fell out of favor when detained while trying to visit Japanese Disneyland on a false passport. It suggests a magnificent story of authority, austerity, the appeal of globalism, and the childishness of power. It ties in somehow to the wild success in American cities of campaigns in which the authorities trade toys for guns.


From the Times for October 13:

A visit to Vietnam this week by Robert M. Gates, the United States defense secretary, is just the latest step in a bilateral relationship that is at its warmest since diplomatic ties were established 15 years ago.

We trade with Vietnam. US naval ships stop there. American veterans are free to go there to visit the places they fought. Vietnamese are still helping us dig up the corpses of soldiers so we can bring them home.

Our close relationship is based in large part on a mutual desire to counter-balance China, North Vietnam's ally in the war that ended thirty years ago. But even China is mostly an ally.

It all confirms that 50,000 Americans died for nothing, for a misconception.

The speech ejection case

The Supremes refused to pick up the case of two silent, well behaved attendees who were ejected from the audience for a speech by President Bush in 2005 because their car outside had a bumper sticker, "No Blood for Oil."

This result underlines the proposition that the only First Amendment rights the Court's majority cares about are those of billionaires.

Lenny Bruce said, "in the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls."

The Times for October 14

I have something to say about every front page article (this is a first).

Reading across: The financier, Obama friend and automobile industry hero who accepted an SEC ban and fine in a "pay to play" pension case was culpable, but a victim of the semi-legalized bribery omnipresent in American politics. In New York and other states, the only way to get business was to hire particular connected advisors who officially guaranteed you access to the pension fund and unofficially guaranteed business in return for your payment. I have run into this personally at various levels: as a young attorney starting out in the 1980's, I was told that only certain connected attorneys could obtain liquor licenses for clients, while an unwired neophyte like myself had no hope. As an executive of a software service firm in the 1990's, I discovered that my company had no hope of getting any government contracts, because we didn't have the clout and money to get the lobbyists who could get us in."Pay to play" is the American way.

Linda McMahon, Republican running for the Senate in Connecticut, succeeded in the cartoonish man's world of wrestling, and the women don't like her: she's too harsh and virulent and they don't like the wrestling connection. Love the irony.

The Chilean mine emergency: it was lovely to find an example of human inventiveness, fueled by compassion, which worked unspoiled by politics, ego, hatred, fear or greed. The Chileans, with consulting help from all over the world, found, fed and eventually removed all the trapped miners, in good health. Contrast the botched raid last week, in which U.S. special forces accidentally killed the Scottish woman they were trying to rescue, with a hand grenade.

Banks and foreclosures: The low level clerks hired, in insufficient numbers, and given little training, to deal with foreclosures, were nicknamed "Burger King kids" by the bankers themselves. Not much more to say about that.

By the way, the routine and nationwide practices of having people sign affidavits in foreclosure cases affirming facts they did not know personally, without having reviewed any documents, and then having their signatures notarized later by notaries who weren't present, sometimes in other states: this all flunks Affidavits and Notarization 101. Attorneys a week out of law school know better than this. How did this become routine in large, federally regulated organizations???

Taliban peace talks: Necessary, dangerous, very prone to failure, and likely to become yet one more rope the Republicans will use to hang the Obama administration. Nation-building in Afghanistan (as Bush insisted before he commenced it) seems a quixotic enterprise which cannot possibly succeed. The war itself could continue fifty years, and we will never have an ally there who is not both weak and corrupt. All we really need from a new postwar Afghanistan is that it will not launch attacks on us, or harbor people who will do so. We could decide that the rest of it, the way Afghans deal with Afghans, is beyond our capacity to solve. But what negotiated solution will lead to a safe Afghanistan? The Taliban do not in general seem like people who feel any need to honor any promises they make us.

On further thought, and reading a Times follow up the next day: This may be self delusion, like the Paris peace talks were during the Vietnam era. The Taliban know that time, gravity and entropy are on their side.

Syrian drought: In just four or five years, a vast tract of farmland in Syria and Iraq has become desert. Global warming is partly to blame, local mismanagement of water resources contributed, and Turkish dams have diverted some of the water. Millions of people in the region are being thrown into poverty and becoming migrants--a problem which cannot even begin to be solved in the context of Syria's opposition to the West and support of Hezbollah, and the chaos in Iraq. Its a perfect example of human problems being best solved at the global level, something that may never be possible given our childish and parochial nature. But what is the alternative?

The Death Penalty

Supreme Court justices listening to argument of a case involving a death row prisoner seeking DNA testing, never asked the question why Texas officials would fight to the death (so to speak) to prevent testing. Probably because they know the answer, and don't care. One of the most disturbing elements in our entire justice system is the existence of procedural guilt trumping actual innocence. This is the proposition that it doesn't matter if you actually did not do the crime, as long as you had a complete set of procedural "rights" granted you along the way. I translate this as follows: if you got fucked enough times at trial and on appeal, then you are ready for the ultimate fucknasium, an unjust execution. And there is not a damn thing you can do about it. Pure fuckology.

Personally, if I were founding a new planet and writing its laws, actual innocence would trump anything else, ever.

Justice Scalia's statement in a 2006 opinion that nobody can cite “a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit,” seems to me a wilfully dishonest statement. Justice Scalia cannot possibly believe an innocent person has never been executed in America. Instead, he is glorying in the difficulties of proof. Texas' behavior in this case is a stunning example of the reason why innocence is so hard to prove, until the day comes when appeals courts and particularly the Supremes turn off the obfuscatory smoke of "procedural guilt".

Carl Paladino

Carl Paladino, Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York, is an idiot.


Campaign ads have always made me ill for their mendacity--both parties cram as much vicious half truth as they can get away with into 60 seconds. But a radio ad I just heard for Randy Altschuler, Republican running against the incumbent Tim Bishop in Eastern Suffolk County, is a particularly vicious case study. In a short minute, Altschuler makes five or six claims, including: 1. Bishop voted against middle class tax cuts. In fact, Democrats were eager to extend these Bush era cuts; Republicans announced they wouldn't support extending them unless cuts for the top 1% of the population were also extended, and the whole matter got cravenly kicked over to after the elections. 2. Bishop voted for a health care reform that will gut Medicare. Bishop voted for a bill that will restrain some senseless spending, while doing other work such as ensuring coverage of children with pre-existing conditions, regulating premium increases, and creating state pools which will cover people who can't get commercial health insurance. Altschuler supports keeping the broken status quo, under which forty million Americans are uninsured.

It is hard to see how we can continue to susptain an informed democracy with this kind of lying the routine in elections. This is not worse than usual; it is the disgusting standard.

The Japanese

The Japanese are in a slump which has continued nearly twenty years, since their own real estate bubble collapsed. Both prices and national spirit have continued to decline, as there is no new investment and no consumer spending. China has stepped into the second place in world economies while the Japanese GDP and stock market have dwindled. Twenty-five years ago ambitious young Americans were flocking to college Japanese classes. Now they are taking Chinese instead.

I am wondering if this is what our own future holds. We too are experiencing deflation and a severe lack of confidence, symbolized by a jobless recovery in which companies are hoarding cash or paying down debt instead of investing in new enterprises.

David Headley

The man who scouted Mumbai for the murderous Pakistani attackers who shot more than 160 people to death is a 50 year old American, son of a Pakistani father and a Philadelphia socialite mother. He has the classic status, like a John leCarre character, of working simultaneously for everyone in sight: he was an informer for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, while taking seed money from Pakistani ISI to finance his forays into Mumbai, and sincerely committed to the Pakistani-supported terrorist group and Qaeda fellow traveller, Lashkar-e-Taiba. Sadly, two of his three wives had tried to inform American intelligence in recent years of his murderous tendencies and even specifically of the plan to attack Mumbai, without being believed. When you start examining covert international affairs, the question of who did what to whom and why often seems completely unanswerable.


Quoted without comment from the Times for October 18:

Today’s giant banks not only create and sell investment products, but also bet on those products, and sometimes against them, putting the banks’ interests at odds with those of their customers. The banks and their lobbyists also help fashion financial rules and regulations. And banks’ traders know what their customers are buying and selling, giving them a valuable edge.


Sociologists and economists are rediscovering the "culture of poverty", the idea that your surrounding circumstances play some part in whether you can join the middle class.


I suppose the idea was anathema to some for a while because of the racist presumption that certain classes of people are lazy and want to be taken care of by the government. Instead, we can usefully focus on communities in which stability simply isn't possible--where to focus a spotlight on just a single issue, kids can't get their homework done in a safe, quiet environment due to violence or family problems. In general, as we know from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, significant energy has to be expended to re-balance things that are off balance. The conditions which create poverty in the first place tend to perpetuate it from generation to generation. African American poverty in this country in that sense is a direct result of slavery and the conditions under which the slaves were freed but not given an entry or a stake in this country. If you scoff that slavery is ancient history, reflect on the fact that many ex-slaves were certainly still alive when my parents were born in the 1920's, asnd a few were still around when I was born in 1954. The time from 1865 until today is vanishingly small even in human historical time. The Eastern Roman empire subsisted for another thousand years after the western empire was overthrown by barbarians, for example.

What concerns me about the new focus on "cultures" of poverty is who is behind it, and what irrelevant or dishonest purposes it may be used for. The Times for October 18 reports that a significant recent study came out of the University of Chicago, but nowhere mentions that this is a conservative bastion which also notoriously assisted in murderous capitalism in Chile during the Pinochet era.

What also astounds me in reading about these studies is how many of the answers I know personally just from having worked in the South Bronx as an emergency medical technician. I know that single moms would be eager to marry their "baby daddy" if he can find or hold a job and would stick around. I never met anyone who had kids out of wedlock in order to get AFDC--the reasons that "babies have babies" is much more complex than that. I know that most of the South Bronx parents I met really loved their kids and did not abuse them, but could not necessarily protect them against the surrounding drug-related violence, or keep them immune to the allure of the "gangsta" lifestyle. I met a lot of hard working people having trouble making ends meet (illegal Mexican immigrants work harder than anybody and for less money). It amuses but does not surprise me that academics studying poverty at places like the U. of Chicago may take years to (or may never) arrive at truths you could learn in an hour in the neighborhood.

Stimulus bullshit

If you believe that the Republicans would not have bailed out Wall Street had they been in control in September 2008, raise your hand.

The Yes Men

I am on the mailing list for the Yes Men, so get both their fake and corrective releases whenever they fool the media. Yesterday, I got three communications, their launch of a phony Chevron ad campaign, their fake Chevron news release reacting to their machinations, and finally their crowing and self congratulatory dissection of what they had done. It is all very funny, and they are very clever people, but I can't help thinking that that is the real motivation, and not activism. But, media being what they are, a simple straight statement from an activist group denouncing Chevron's dodgier activities would have gotten no attention, and this received a lot.

Money in Elections

The gross influx of anonymous millions into nonprofits who don't have to disclose donors, and then spend them on attack ads against candidates, is a dismal prospect for democracy. The application of the First Amendment as a shield to the buying of elections, does not promote a diversity of small voices, but ends it. We are well on our way to one party rule in the United States.

A Hard Rain

A female activist who tried to approach Rand Paul was beaten and stomped by his entourage. Tea Party minions are mounting threatening campaigns to discourage voter registration organizations--of which the biggest, Acorn, was driven out of business entirely not long ago. Anonymous billionaires are determining outcomes of elections with lying attack ads paid for with unlimited, soft money. Words mean their opposite, and the electorate is about to be tricked into turning over the reins of power to the party with the least intention of solving problems of health care, unemployment and mortgage relief. We are not far away from the oligarchical sham democracy practiced in Russia today, in which as eminent a figure as Mikhail Gorbachev was unable to overcome the red tape necessary to register a new party (while Putin claims new parties have failed because they have nothing interesting to offer the people).

How to Tell You're a Tool

People like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin could not succeed if the world wasn't full of people they can manipulate. Here are a few practical ways to tell if you're a tool of such people:

*You let someone else provide your entire ideology for you.

*You find yourself speaking in canned phrases coined or transmitted by them.

*You never disagree with anything they say.

*You have no critical faculty for looking behind words to get to their true meaning or lack thereof.

*You believe in the implicit truth of lurid labels, the more lurid the better.

*You have an implicit belief that the people you adore are looking out for your best interests, even though you are unable to point to any specific act which made your life better.

*You believe automatically that any revelation that any of these idols is flawed (took money inappropriately, has a drug habit, had a conflict of interest) is a lie.

*You also automatically believe any accusation they make against the other side, no matter how incredible (President Obama wasn't born here, is a Marxist, etc.)

The more of these statements apply to you, the more likely that you are a tool.


From the Times for October 13:

The cities, counties and authorities of New York have promised more than $200 billion worth of health benefits to their retirees while setting aside almost nothing, putting the public work force on a collision course with the taxpayers who are expected to foot the bill.

It seems to be a phenomenon common to all First World countries. Modern medicine, nutrition and hygiene dictate that people are living longer than ever before. Gender equality, birth control and modern concepts of liberty cause low birth rates. The result is the ratio of retirees to working people (whose taxes finance the retirement benefits) is completely out of whack, and may not restore itself til we have another dark age. This is a problem even in a good economy, and becomes far bleaker and more frightening in a bad one. It highlights the most grotesque problem of the human condition, and the one which may still end our life on earth one day: we are very wise in the details, and extraordinarily childish in the big picture. We have been raised in a centuries old philosophy that no matter what we do, it will all somehow come out all right; but it is hard to see how it will, without some capability for planning at the global level, which we are no closer to being able to do than we were in the twelfth century.

We know from our studies that the history of other species on earth is one of massive extinctions and die-offs, and are aware of at least one prominent dark age in our own history, when in fact there have been prior civilizations, about which we know less, that were grander than what came after. Yet somehow, we carry on with the calm and completely groundless belief that we ourselves are exempt from the vagaries and cycles of existence.

Have a nice day.