Wednesday, May 31, 2006

An Open Letter to the Crazy Old Guy Who Failed to Sell Me an Awning Window Operator

(Dionne over at Rock, Paper, Scissors, Gun seems to have a lot of fun with this form, so I thought I'd give it a shot.)

Dear Crazy Old Guy Who Failed to Sell Me an Awning Window Operator:

Hello. I visited your window-oriented business yesterday in search of a repair or replacement for a broken awning window operator. You might not remember me. I fear that you might not remember much of anything—at least not in any coherent, logical order.

Your behavior, I confess, still has me wondering whether I briefly stepped across the threshold into an alternate universe when I entered your dingy little shop. I didn't mind the two dogs that barked enthusiastically at me as soon as I entered (soon joined by a third smaller, yappier dog); theirs seemed more like hey, look, a stranger barking rather than let's tear that thing's neck open barking, after all, and they were separated from me by a see-through latticework barrier that must have been at least a foot high—well beyond the vaulting capability of the biggest, fattest hound, I am confident, though I suspect that he could probably have bulldozed through it if he got up a good head of steam, but then he was winded from all the barking. They stopped threatening me as soon as they heard your griping and grumbling as you emerged from the bathroom, anyway.

I had been told that yours might the place to find a replacement for a broken awning window operator. (For the uninitiated, those are the things that, when cranked, make the awning windows swing. Kind of like what Viagra does for Bob Dole. I don't think they're what Ted Nugent was singing about in "Yank Me, Crank Me," but with the Nuge, you never know.). At first, I thought that I had indeed come to the right place. I explained what I was looking for; you took a quick look at the original, broken operator that I had brought with me, and voilà! out of one of many dusty boxes on dusty shelves you produced a very similar window operator. Fifteen bucks. For one fleeting moment, I thought that this particular problem had been solved.

It wasn't the same color as the original, but that wasn't an insurmountable problem; hell, it could be surmounted by a little paint, if necessary. No. The problem was that it wasn't quite the same size as the original. Oh, it looked very similar, and the distance between the two little holes on the bottom was the same, but the distance between the top hole and the bottom holes was a quarter of an inch or so more, and that little swinging arm doohickey that actually connects to the window and makes it swing was a little longer than on the original—and I kind of got the impression from poking about on the web that the distances between and dimensions of these various doohickey thingumabobs were, well, important.

Alas for the concern I showed that this awning window operator would not adequately replace the broken awning window operator! Alas for my furrowed brow, my quizzical expression, my continual turning the things over in my hands, and matching them up, and comparing this bit to that bit! To this point you had been at least vaguely helpful, slapping the new operator into my hand with confident determination, telling me that this is what I was looking for, and informing me that once I took it out, there was no bringing it back. When I showed concern that the new operator might not, well, operate—well, you went from weird, loud, abrasive, but at least vaguely helpful to weird, loud, abrasive, and pissed off.

You see, I didn't mind the odd, intrusive, off-topic questions you kept asking about my personal life. I didn't even mind the dismissive, condescending way you reacted when you found out that I taught. It was clear from the get-go that I already occupied a quite lowly position in the twitchy pecking order in your mind; what matter a slight demotion in the mind of a lunatic? But would it have killed you to have listened to me and to have tried answering my honest questions—just a little?

I admit it: I know precious little about the history and theory of awning windows. I never pretended otherwise. My ignorance of these things is why I came to you. I had been told that you were the best place to go for help with my awning window operator problem. Unfortunately, I had not been told that you are also batshit crazy. The person who sent me to you only told me that after I had experienced you in your full glory. At this point, I don't know whether to thank them or vow revenge.

My main question was really quite simple: Given that the awning window operator that you were trying to sell me differed in some key dimensions from the broken awning window operator that I was trying to replace, would the new operator successfully replace the old operator and, well, work? As I have said, I am not an expert in these things; you, presumably, are. I honestly do not know whether (a) an operator that's a quarter of an inch shorter here and a quarter of an inch longer there will work just as well in the window in question or whether (b) a replacement operator must have exactly the same dimensions as the original in order to work properly. I humbly beg forgiveness for my ignorance. But, given that you had already made clear that you would not take the new operator back once I'd bought it, it seemed, well, reasonable to me to ascertain that the new operator would, in fact, be an adequate replacement for the old operator—as opposed to merely an adequate replacement for a paperweight.

Ah, reason: servant of science; vanquisher of vanities; slayer of superstitions; powerless before the indignation of maniacs. Even now reason lays before me the possibilities, Crazy Old Guy Who Failed to Sell Me an Awning Window Operator:

  1. The slight dimensional differences between the old operator and the new operator—not unlike the slight dimensional differences between this universe and the one you inhabit—would not have mattered, practically speaking, and the new operator would have worked just fine with the window in question.
  2. The slight dimensional differences between the old operator and the new operator would have mattered, practically speaking, and the new operator would not have worked just fine with the window in question.
If (1) is the case, then all you need have done to have found yourself fifteen dollars richer and one awning window operator lighter was to have assuaged my reasonable concerns about those slight dimensional differences. For example, if these operator thingies are designed to be easily interchangeable, or if they're designed so that a quarter of an inch here or there doesn't make any difference in how they work, then you could have explained this to me—thereby addressing my reasonable concerns, increasing my confidence in the new operator's value and my knowledge of awning windows, and making the sale. Instead, you responded to my reasonable concern and curiosity by, first, peppering me with irrelevant questions about my personal life and, eventually, when I refused to be diverted and kept returning to my reasonable questions, snatching the new operator from my hand, replacing it in the dusty box on the dusty shelf, and petulantly proclaiming that you would not sell it to me any more, so there.

If (2) is the case, then you were trying to make a quick fifteen bucks by scamming me.

As I ponder this now, I still am not sure how to answer the question that weighs upon me as a result of our surreal encounter yesterday: Are you dishonest, or merely insane? Strangely enough, this is the same question I often find myself asking about our current national leadership. I did not expect to have a macrocosmic/microcosmic moment upon entering your establishment yesterday, but life is full of surprises.

I am proud, however, of the fact that, faced with your deranged truculence, I became amused rather than angry. I even said as I departed, very politely, "I'm sorry that we couldn't do business, sir." Mind you, I could probably have said "My hovercraft is full of eels" for all the good it would have done.

If you aren't really crazy and were just trying to scam me, Crazy Old Guy Who Failed to Sell Me an Awning Window Operator, then a pox upon you for your dishonesty. If you really are crazy, however, then I'm sorry you couldn't close the sale. That fifteen bucks might have bought some useful medication.

Monday, May 29, 2006

For Memorial Day

The methodical geometry of a veterans' cemetery:

I don't know whether you've ever been to one of these places. The one I'm most familiar with presents an odd combination of pastoral reverence and industrial efficiency. The grounds are beautiful, calm, meditative, impeccably maintained; the visitor's dominant impression is of a fitting place of dignified, timeless repose. If you attend a "committal service" there, though, you get a brief glimpse of the bureaucratic machineries that whir quietly but constantly amid the reverent calm. Funeral parties come and go on a tight schedule; the Visitors' Center always seems to be buzzing with well-dressed, mournful people. The actual burials take place out of sight, swiftly and mechanically, I assume; visitors must say their final goodbyes at "committal shelters," not at graveside. Their loved ones will be laid to rest in one of thousands of numbered, lettered plots. You'll want to know the exact location of the plot if you're ever going to visit someone there; otherwise, you will spend much time wandering among headstones, militarily identical except for name, rank, and symbolism.

Which isn't such a bad thing to do once in a while, really. My mom and dad are buried in the cemetery above; walk around a bit in the vicinity of their graves, and you'll see hundreds of people whose life stories must have overlapped theirs considerably: their childhoods shattered by worldwide depression and war, their young adulthoods molded by global conflict, their later years shadowed by nuclear terror. It was quite a century they lived through—and helped make. And now, one by one, they're taking their places with quiet, military efficiency in lettered, numbered plots in methodical, orderly rows. So many headstones; so many names; so many people who, like my father and uncle, spent years of their lives thousands of miles from home seeing and doing things that most of us can scarcely imagine, side by side now under the tranquil surface of places like this, across which you and I can walk and ponder and read their names and wonder about their lives and leave flowers once in a while.

Rest in peace.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Proud of my species

Dangit, gonna be busy mostly offline today. In the meantime, did you know that there was a space shot yesterday? Nothin' fancy; just a new weather satellite. I thought I'd post a picture of the launch, but it was fairly cloudly here and there wasn't much to see. I went digging in my files, though, and I found these shots from January 19 earlier this year:

This is the New Horizons launch. This is humanity's first mission to Pluto. I'm sorry the photos aren't great, but this is the fastest spacecraft ever launched; I've seen a lot of launches, and lemme tell ya, this thing really did zip up into the sky at an astonishing rate. If all goes right, New Horizons will be nearing Pluto, oh, about nine years from right now. If I'm still alive then, I hope that I can summon up a memory of standing in the backyard and watching it as its journey to the edge of the solar system began.

I confess: there are very few things that make me feel like a kid again, but space shots are among them. I get a chill just thinking that something that left the Earth a few miles from where I'm sitting right now will eventually be sending back information from a mysterious world millions of miles away in the icy depths of space. I only wish I could remember the Voyager launches back in 1977; I know I was living on the "Space Coast" at the time, but I guess other things have crowded out those memories. Voyager 1 and 2 have to be the coolest things ever built. Having already sent back reams of information about Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, they are now heading off into interstellar space, carrying those amazing Golden Records that testify to the existence of an intelligent, creative species on the third stone from the Sun. (I still remember Father Guido Sarducci imagining a message one day coming in from outer space: "Send more Chuck Berry.") Voyager 1 is now the most distant man-made object in existence.

"I just hope that they don't discover the secret extraterrestrial pundit breeding vats, Brit."

There are things that make you proud to be (insert state or national affiliation here). There are things that make you proud to be (insert ethnic or gender affiliation here). Then there are things that make you proud to be human. There are things that make you proud of your species. The fact that we send stuff out into space to learn about the universe we live in—that makes me proud of my species. In many ways we may be, as Bill Hicks once said, "a virus with shoes," but dammit, we also do science. Forgive me for taking a certain amount of pride in that.

I take considerably less pride in having nearly fallen for Jason Leopold's Rove indictment claim on, which has since become an object of scorn in the right-wing trogosphere. I'm glad that I had the presence of mind to include a Google News link in my original post, and to remark twice later on the continuing silence from official quarters—it makes me feel like slightly less of an idiot. Alas that truthout's "partial apology" leaves something to be desired. I still hope that truthout is right and that Leopold's story will prove to have been merely "too far out in front of the news-cycle" as opposed to, say, completely wrong. Meanwhile, thank you, TBogg, for reminding us that the Right also knows the embarrassment of premature speculation.

I may wind up being offline much of tomorrow, too, so just in case:

Yep. To the average human being, nothing says "sex" quite like feet, amoebas, and exclamation points. Mmmmm. Yeah, baby.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Just Like Tom Tomorrow's Blues

Sorry, the Dylan post is going to have to wait a bit. You're heartbroken, I know. Meanwhile, I see that Tom Tomorrow has the mopes about his new book. This cannot stand!

Tom: I'm very sorry if things haven't gone as you'd hoped with the new book. I'll buy it, I swear. I've bought a bunch of your other compilations, and I cherish them. I've been reading you for—well, over a decade, I guess. You were the first thing I turned to every week in The Austin Chronicle back when I lived in Austin; yours was one of the first websites I ever bookmarked. Hell, yours was probably the first blog I ever read, as you were doing the equivalent of blogging back before anyone knew what blogging was. Your distinctively text-heavy cartoons have been making me both laugh and think for years. Hell, your cartoons were one of the things that got me thinking critically about the media—and about the many shortcomings in its coverage of politics, economics, and everything else that matters to citizens of a democracy—back in the Nineties. If I have attained any wisdom at all about spin, scripting, talking points, fog facts, consent manufacture, etc. etc. etc., the thanks go in part to you—and I'm sure that there are thousands of people out there who could say the same. Our gratitude and respect for you are immense. You, sir, are an artist of great accomplishment. I am not an expert on the art of cartooning, but as far as I am concerned, you belong among such greats as Nast, Mauldin, and Trudeau for your distinctive contributions to the medium and for your unrivaled ability to use your medium to provoke both thought and laughter. If people like you find their work marginalized in this time and this culture, the fault is the time's and the culture's, not yours. (As the man once said, forgive them: they know not what they do.) Big-time liberal columnists might disappoint you, major newspaper writers might duck your calls, but thousands upon thousands of us out there know your value, cherish your work, and look upon you with the highest respect. You have more than earned it—and no amount of ducked calls, unwritten introductions, or five-watt interviews can ever change that. I know that the blues can be hard to chase away, but please keep this in mind the next time you get them.

Oh, and you're a damned good writer, too.

What do you think, hideous alien puppet pundit?

"I'm much more familiar with Mallard Fillmore, Brit."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Morning Captions

(Busy at the moment; hope to have a longer post tomorrow in honor of Bob Dylan's birthday. Until then, here's some captious fun.)

Madonna's roadies lay in supplies for her upcoming world tour.
All this, and she's only going down to the corner for a TV Guide and some beef jerky. I swear, everything's a production with these people.


If I want to see An Inconvenient Truth, the acclaimed new film about Al Gore's patient efforts to awaken Americans to the reality and danger of global warming, at its earliest opening in my state, I will have to drive at least 137 miles each way and burn from seven to nine gallons of gasoline.

If I want to see the film at a closer location a week later, I will still have to drive at least 70 miles each way and burn at least four gallons of gasoline.

Unless I get lucky and a local theater decides to bring the film in, I have to commit a small eco-crime if I want to show eco-support for this acclaimed eco-film on its opening eco-weekend.


Monday, May 22, 2006

Question for the Day

Should the Secretary of State take her cues from Rod Stewart songs?


Nightmare Fuel for the Soul

Few things have done more to keep psychotherapists in boat-payment money than Disney's Walrus Encounter®.

A Pepper Larger than the Oxford English Dictionary?

Men, it can be done:

OK, so it's the Shorter OED—on CD-ROM—and a Long Cayenne. But this Long Cayenne is still just a baby. Fully grown, it'd give the full OED a run for its money, I swear. Senator Kerry knows what I'm talkin' about:

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Friday Morning Bolivian Rainbow Blogging

I may be incommunicado tomorrow, so I thought I'd post this now. These purty things are Bolivian Rainbow Peppers:

They start out purple, but as they mature, they grow into a polychromatic panoply of different colors. Kind of like America.

Note that there are also Brazilian Rainbows, Brazilian Starfish, and Venezuela peppers—not to mention the crunchy Cubanelle.

Why does the genus Capsicum hate America?

A Noble Spirit Embiggens the Smallest Blogger

Y'know, it's nice when you wake up in the morning and find that you and Stephen Colbert (and/or his writers) are on the same page—only when he plays Guilt By Association, it's funny. Courtesy Media Matters, from the May 15 Colbert Report (I don't have cable, and I swear I did not see or hear about this before posting yesterday):
COLBERT: Anyway, I didn't have anything to do, so I wound up reading the 17-page letter Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote to President Bush. I know what you are thinking, yes, reading other people's mail is a federal crime, especially when it is reprinted in the liberal press, but something changed my mind. This trenchant analysis of the letter by John Gibson of Fox News. Take a look.

GIBSON [video clip]: That nutjob running Iran, President -- let's see if I can pronounce it -- Ahmadinejad, sent President Bush a letter, and if it weren't postmarked Tehran, it may have been mistaken for a crank letter from an angry leftist in L.A. or Boulder [Colorado] or Cambridge, Massachusetts. WMD lie, says the Iranian president: Democrat talking point. Human rights abuses in Gitmo: another Democrat talking point. The gap between haves and have-nots: the Iranian president and the Dems in lockstep on that one too.

COLBERT: I couldn't agree more. That letter sounds like it was written by Howard Dean, proofread by Nancy Pelosi, spell-checked by Janeane Garofalo, and then stuffed into an envelope by Alec Baldwin. Oh, and a quick apology to my viewers. Earlier, when I mentioned the Iranian president, I neglected to note the difficulty of pronouncing his name. I assure you, I will not pronounce it correctly again. Anyway, John Gibson and I aren't the only ones who noticed how much the Democrats sound like president -- oh boy, let's see if I can get this right -- Achmen-in-nin-nin-jihad. It's tough. Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard pointed it out. So did Daniel Henninger over at the Wall Street Journal and, of course, Rush Limbaugh. Man, that guy is back at the top of his game now that he is off the goofballs.

And I got to tell you, when I read President -- oh, Lord help me, help me get my mouth around this crazy name -- Aman-olly-olly-oxen-free-ninijad-iad -- something like that. When I read the letter myself, I found even more Democratic talking points. Listen to this: "All governments have a duty to protect the lives, properties, and good standing of their citizens." Democratic talking point. "We also believe that Jesus Christ, praise be upon him, was one of the great prophets of the almighty." Democratic talking point. "The killing of innocents is deplorable and appalling in any part of the world." Democratic talking point.

Democrats, when are you going to learn that when an evil dictator like Achmen-inin-Michael-Mooreijad starts using your talking points, you've got to disagree with them? If he says there is too great a gap between rich and poor, you say there's not enough of a gap. If he says there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, you point out that sand is a weapon of mass destruction when used properly. You could sort of toss it in someone's eyes during a knife fight. Works.

You see, if someone is sufficiently evil, everything about them and what they believe is wrong, whether or not it's right. That's why I'm not a vegetarian. Because Hitler was a vegetarian -- and I'm sorry, I'm not a fan of Hitler. I know that's going to disappoint a lot of Democrats. And for that matter, you know what, speaking of Mother's Day, why are we celebrating mothers at all? Because it just occurred to me: Stalin had a mother. Shame on you, mommies.

Wow. Learn from a master. He belittles Gibson's sleazy insinuations about "Democrat talking points" by absurdly imagining a whole team of prominent lefties, each with a progressively (pardon the pun) simpler job to do, working on the letter (a nice example of descending incongruity); he belittles the formulaic right-wing trope of mocking Ahmadinejad's name (it's foreign! it's got a lot of syllables! it's funny!) by parodying it and thereby revealing its shallowness; he belittles their whole guilt-by-association game by pulling other associations out of Ahmadinejad's letter in such a way as to reduce the whole sleazy game to absurdity; finally, he hits the pitch right out of the park by making some truly insane associations of his own. All in a few tight, economical paragraphs that, in best creative fashion, leave much of the cognitive work to the listener—so they participate, in their way, in the process of making meaning. We are all embiggened by Colbert's cromulent belittling.

"Mr. Colbert, the Brotherhood of Belarusian John Cleese Impersonators salutes you."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Writing for the Ombudsman or Someone Like Him

Another day, another ombudsman has a fit. This time it's Jeffrey Dvorkin at NPR, complaining that Media Matters and Think Progress distorted what Mara Liasson said last week on Fox and whining that he got a lot of nasty emails as a result.

Dvorkin says that Media Matters and Think Progress misrepresented what Liasson said because they relied on a misleading Fox transcript—"Due to a misplaced comma, it left the impression that both parties had profited directly from Abramoff." Media Matters and Think Progress say that they did not rely on the Fox transcript for their reports; they relied on their video of Liasson's commentary, which you can watch here.

At issue, really, is whether Liasson was trying to spin the Abramoff scandal as a bipartisan one when it's overwhelmingly a Republican one. Let's see. Abramoff himself gave only to Republicans; some of Abramoff's clients did give to Democrats but shifted their giving toward Republicans after dealing with Abramoff. Whether both parties are capable of corruption is not the issue. Both parties are made up of human beings, and all human beings are capable of corruption; therefore, both parties are capable of corruption. But that's speaking generally; the corruption in this particular case largely involves Republicans. It's not surprising that some Republicans and/or their media supporters would try to shift the focus from the particular to the general—when what is at issue is this particular scandal, they lose. Another way to say "shift the focus," of course, is to say "misdirect." Misdirection is the stock-in-trade of conjurors and other tricksters: get the audience looking here while the important stuff is happening there. Result: the audience is fooled, and it doesn't know how.

Alas, I fear that Jeffrey Dvorkin is desperately trying to shift our focus, too—away from the overall tenor of Liasson's remarks and toward a misplaced comma. If you can even figure out from his post what "misplaced comma" he's talking about, congratulations. All his post says is that the misplaced comma "left the impression that Liasson said that both parties had profited directly from Abramoff." In its own response to Dvorkin, Media Matters is more helpful: "Dvorkin attacked Media Matters and defended Liasson's comments, asserting that the Fox News transcript had incorrectly included the comma after 'Republicans', leaving 'the impression that Liasson said that both parties had profited directly from Abramoff'." Hmm. Here's the excerpt that Media Matters included in its May 7 post (emphasis theirs):

WALLACE: Mara, Democrats, as Brit [Hume, Fox News anchor and Washington bureau managing editor] points out, have been making a big deal so far this year about Republicans and the "culture of corruption." Do Democrats now have their own glass house?

LIASSON: Yes. Well, look. I think that voters think there is a culture of corruption. They just don't think it's a Republican culture of corruption yet. And I think that every time you hear another one of these kind of bipartisan scandal stories, where it's Democrats, not just Republicans, taking money from Abramoff, it underlines a feeling that people tell pollsters over and over again, which is that everybody does it, that there's not really much difference.

Now, of course, in terms of the lobbying scandals and the money-related scandals, there are more Republicans involved. They're the majority party. But I think that the way this is playing out politically is that if you are an individual congressman involved in something like this, you're going to have some trouble in November unless you're in a super safe seat.

It might add to a general feeling of anger at incumbents, just the fact that there's more stuff that people don't like in Washington, and that adds to the anti-incumbent view. But I think to make a big partisan indictment, which is what the Democrats are trying to do, to say this is a Republican culture of corruption, I think makes it a lot harder.

Now here's the smaller excerpt at Think Progress (emphasis theirs). Note that there's no comma after 'Republicans':
I think every time you hear another one of these kind of bipartisan scandal stories, where it’s Democrats, not just Republicans taking money from Abramoff, it underlines a feeling that people tell pollsters over and over again, that everybody does it.
Hmm. Here are the two options:
  1. another one of these kind of bipartisan scandal stories, where it's Democrats, not just Republicans, taking money from Abramoff
  2. another one of these kind of bipartisan scandal stories, where it’s Democrats, not just Republicans taking money from Abramoff
What's that you say? In both, the main idea is Democrats taking money from Abramoff? That the comma after 'Republicans' in (1) is quite correct, grammatically speaking, since it sets off nonessential information that interrupts the main flow of the sentence? That (2), while it does place slightly more emphasis on Republicans taking money from Abramoff, is actually grammatically incorrect? And its main idea—Democrats taking money from Abramoff—is the same, anyway? Congratulations. You know how to read.

Nice try, Mr. Dvorkin, but I'm not buying the comma crap. It's misdirection, anyway. Go ahead: watch the clip of Liasson at Media Matters. Tell me that the overall thrust of her remarks isn't an attempt to shift the focus away from this particular scandal (in which Republicans are heavily implicated) and toward there's a culture of corruption in general, so stop picking on Republicans. Go ahead. I dare you.

I'm sorry that you got some nasty emails, Mr. Dvorkin; I wish that more people would follow the advice that Media Matters itself gives:

When contacting the media, please be polite and professional. Express your specific concerns regarding that particular news report or commentary, and be sure to indicate exactly what you would like the media outlet to do differently in the future.
I'm sorry that some people see email more as a convenient way to vent anger than as a convenient way to communicate reasonable thoughts and criticisms. But I also understand why some people might get angry enough to bombard you with nasty emails: Despite the very NPR ethics guide that you mention in your post, one of your correspondents repeatedly goes on Fox and dutifully recites Republican spin—and, what's worse, she does so by repeating "zombie lies" that were debunked long ago. Put yourself in the position of a viewer, and ask yourself: Is this not profoundly disrespectful toward those on the consuming end of media? Ask yourself also: Is not anger an understandable response when you are treated with such disrespect?

"I just want to be loved; is that so wrong?"
This is not to say that such anger should simply be vented; on the contrary. It is far better to subject such passions to the controlling hand of reason (which is not to be confused with Willem Dafoe's hand). I am merely pointing that your listeners have good reason, if you'll pardon the expression, to be angry. Alas that now, with your attempt at misdirection by blaming the whole brouhaha on a misplaced comma that makes no real difference, and your accusations that Media Matters and Think Progress are practicing "guilt by association" in criticizing an NPR correspondent for repeatedly trafficking in Republican zombie spin lies, you have given them even more reason to be angry. Expect more emails. We'll expect more whining.

Jeez, you want Guilt By Association? The right-wing media can take you to school. Check out what they've done since Iranian President Ahmadinejad sent that recent letter to Bush:

"I'm your boogeyman, that's what I am."
Not to be outdone, Oliver North and Sean Hannity have tried to blame Howard Dean for a bunch of anti-gay protesters who have been protesting at military funerals. Why? Apparently because they haven't heard Howard Dean denounce them. Hannity even tried to blame "the anti-war left" for the protests staged by Fred Phelps and his hate-filled followers. Apparently, the fact that these people protest at military funerals is enough to link them to the left—because the left just hates the military, dontcha know.

Do you see what we're up against, Mr. Dvorkin? Do you see why some people might get angry when they see an NPR correspondent playing the same sick game that these people play?

Hey, kids—play along at home! It's fun:

Speaking of whiny ombudsmen, I see that former New York Times "public editor" number one Daniel Okrent is going to be on Fresh Air today. What do ombudspersons travel in? A herd? A flock? An agony??

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Kick Out the Jams

Paris Balls—they're not just a male ailment anymore.

Crickets, Part II

Still no official Rove indictment. Here's what had to say in an email yesterday:
How Accurate Was the 'Rove Indicted' Story?

On Saturday afternoon, we ran a breaking story titled, "Karl Rove Indicted on Charges of Perjury, Lying to Investigators." We assumed that we were well ahead of the mainstream media and that we would be subsequently questioned. Right on both counts.

What everyone is asking right now is how accurate is the story? Has Rove in fact been indicted? The story is accurate, and Karl Rove's attorneys have been served with an indictment.

In short, we had two sources close to the Fitzgerald investigation who were explicit about the information that we published, and a former high-ranking state department official who reported communication with a source who had "direct knowledge" of the meeting at Patton Boggs. In both instances, substantial detail was provided and matched.

We had confirmation. We ran the story.

So what's the deal? Was the announcement postponed so as not to overshadow the immigration speech last night? Will an indictment be announced this week, at long last? Is truthout trafficking in misinformation?

More Fitzmas presents, please.

What's THIS?

A government source tells ABC reporters that the government is tracking their phone numbers?
A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we (Brian Ross and Richard Esposito) call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

"It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told us in an in-person conversation.

ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.

The FBI confirms this?
The FBI acknowledged late Monday that it is increasingly seeking reporters' phone records in leak investigations.

"It used to be very hard and complicated to do this, but it no longer is in the Bush administration," said a senior federal official.

The acknowledgement followed our blotter item that ABC News reporters had been warned by a federal source that the government knew who we were calling.

The official said our blotter item was wrong to suggest that ABC News phone calls were being "tracked."

"Think of it more as backtracking," said a senior federal official.

Well, we have nothing to fear unless we're terrorists, right, so I guess reporters and whistleblowers are terrorists. Who knew?

That Robert Parry sure is one smart sumbitch, huh?

Amy Goodman is talking to Brian Ross on Democracy Now! at the moment; it's streaming live and should be archived soon for those curious. And hey, look—Greg Palast was on yesterday.

Thank you, internet.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Richard Cohen: a Scientific Analysis

Over at Washington Babylon, Ken Silverstein has followed up Richard Cohen's assault on Stephen Colbert by crunching some columns and answering some tough questions:

Is Richard Cohen funny?

Humor is subjective, but the evidence here is overwhelmingly and painfully clear: Cohen is not "a funny guy." He is funny like Karl Rove is sexy.
Is Richard Cohen courageous?
Cohen’s columns did periodically raise questions about the cause for war—for example, he criticized Bush for not supplying the intelligence to back up its claim of Iraq’s potential nuclear capabilities, albeit because he worried that the administration would overstep its rhetorical bounds and reduce the chance that Cohen could have the war he so anxiously desired.

But on balance his writing had all the nuance of the World War I-era stories in the British press about German soldiers marching through Belgium with babies on their bayonets. Cohen has now become more critical of the war—"Whatever Bush’s specific reason or reasons," he wrote on March 30, "the one thing that’s so far missing from the record is proof of him looking for a genuine way out of war instead of looking for a way to get it started." Ironic, given his own pre-war calls for blood. It reminds me of a Randy Newman concert I went to in the 1980s. "This is a song," Randy said from the stage, "in which I strongly come out against the war in Vietnam. Now that it’s safe."

The upshot?
Thus, we can safely say that Cohen is not qualified to judge Colbert’s performance. And we can also say: President Bush, check your lap. There's someone there who needs petting.
What do you think, hideous alien puppet pundit?

"That's so not funny. I find Karl Rove quite sexy, Brit."


Nope. Still nothing official on a Rove indictment. Jason Leopold? You haven't been yanking our chains, have you? Or getting your own yanked?

Senator Reid? Do you have anything to add?

"I am now in direct communication with the mothership."

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Dance, Then, Wherever You May Be

Karl Rove Indicted on Charges of Perjury, Lying to Investigators

Jason Leopold says at truthout:

Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald spent more than half a day Friday at the offices of Patton Boggs, the law firm representing Karl Rove.

During the course of that meeting, Fitzgerald served attorneys for former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove with an indictment charging the embattled White House official with perjury and lying to investigators related to his role in the CIA leak case, and instructed one of the attorneys to tell Rove that he has 24 hours to get his affairs in order, high level sources with direct knowledge of the meeting said Saturday morning.

Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, did not return a call for comment. Sources said Fitzgerald was in Washington, DC, Friday and met with Luskin for about 15 hours to go over the charges against Rove, which include perjury and lying to investigators about how and when Rove discovered that Valerie Plame Wilson was a covert CIA operative and whether he shared that information with reporters, sources with direct knowledge of the meeting said.

It was still unknown Saturday whether Fitzgerald charged Rove with a more serious obstruction of justice charge. Sources close to the case said Friday that it appeared very likely that an obstruction charge against Rove would be included with charges of perjury and lying to investigators

It certainly hasn't made the mainstream media yet. Lead story on tonight's evening news? Pretty please?

"Hey, Karl—what's with these little sixes etched into your skull?"

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Speaking of an Unspeakable Ménage à Trois

(I originally posted a version of this in the comments over at Mia Culpa, but what the hell.)

"Jeez, Jebby—her ass looks so tight, I bet I could bounce quarters off it."

"You have, George. You have."

"Really? I don't remember that."

"I'll add that to the list of things you don't remember, George." *wink*

"Why are you guys talking about me like I'm not even here?"

"Aw, c'mon, missy—don't pretend like you don't like it." *smirk*

Friday, May 12, 2006

What Could YOU Do With Dozens of Millions of Phone Records?

Are you one of those people whose first reaction to yesterday's revelation that the NSA has been secretly compiling a humongous database of phone records covering damn near everybody in America was, "So? President Bush says they're protecting the privacy of ordinary Americans, and hey, what harm could the government do with records telling them nothing but who called whom and when, anyway?" Then Robert Parry can help you broaden your imagination:
In his brief remarks, however, Bush didn’t define what he meant by "ordinary Americans" nor whether the data-mining might cover, say, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people, just not "millions."

For instance, would a journalist covering national security be regarded as an "ordinary American"? What about a political opponent or an anti-war activist who has criticized administration policies in the Middle East? Such "unordinary" people might number in the tens of thousands, but perhaps not into the millions.

Also, isn’t it reasonable to suspect that the Bush administration would be tempted to tap into its huge database to, say, check on who might have been calling reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker—or now USA Today—where significant national security stories have been published?

Or during Campaign 2004, wouldn’t the White House political apparatchiks have been eager to know whether, say, Sen. John Kerry had been in touch with foreign officials who might have confided that they were worried about Bush gaining a second term?

Or what about calls to and from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald while he investigates a White House leak of the identity of Valerie Plame, the CIA officer married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, an Iraq War critic?

What if one of these "unordinary" Americans had placed a lot of calls to an illicit lover or a psychiatrist? Wouldn’t Bush’s aggressive political operatives know just how to make the most of such information?

I mean, jeez, it's not like the government hasn't done sleazy, anti-democratic things before. Is it so hard to believe that this administration might be up to similar tricks again? Existing law already lets the government spy on Americans with judicial oversight; why is the Bush Administration so intent on getting around these traditional safeguards against tyranny? Do they really think that there are millions of Al Qaeda operatives out there in the homeland? This isn't about "spying on terrorists"; everyone I know is happy to let the government do that. This is about whether the government has the right to spy on everyone, regardless of whether there is probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or any reason at all to think they have ties to terrorists. If you think the government ought to have that right, then please don't come to me with that idiot question, "Why do you hate America?" You're the one who's driven a stake through its heart.

For more on this and any other Bush surveillance scandal, bookmark and read the indispensable Glenn Greenwald. You'll be glad you did.

A Stray Thought While Surfing

You may have seen Paul Schrader's film Auto Focus, about the double life led by now-infamous Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane. There's a key scene in the film where sex-obsessed Crane (Greg Kinnear) and partner-in-swing John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) are watching a videotape of one of their orgies. Crane is puzzled by a body part: there's a hand on his ass, but he can't figure out whose hand it is. (It's kind of like the famous extra hand in da Vinci's Last Supper. Kind of.) Carpenter looks at the screen for a moment, turns to Crane, and says, amusedly, "That's my hand, Bob." Though Carpenter thinks nothing of it—it was an orgy, after all—Crane freaks out a little at the homoerotic implications; if I remember rightly, this scene in fact marks the beginning of the eventual split with "Carpie" that (according to the film) led to Crane's grisly death in an Arizona motel room.

Anyway, a while back I had the pleasure of watching Auto Focus with a good friend who, like me, is a Mystery Science Theater 3000 devotee. When you're a Mystery Science Theater 3000 devotee, strange things often happen in your head while you're watching the average film. A strange thing happened in our heads as we watched that scene. Suddenly, we had a new standard to which anything creepy, disturbing, or unsettling could be compared: It's like Willem Dafoe's hand on your ass. Ever since, at any odd moment, when we run across something creepy, disturbing, or unsettling, we've found ourselves thinking and saying things like

It's something of a private language, but it works for us.

Anyway, this is just to explain why the other day, when I surfed across this screengrab of Mara Liasson at Think Progress, the first thought I had was

Willem Dafoe's hand strikes again.
Looking at the picture again, though, I find myself wondering why this alien puppet creature seems so familiar . . . . Oh, yeah:

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Letter to the Howler

I am one of thousands of people who, lacking cable, first heard about Stephen Colbert's now-(in)famous talk at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner about a week ago -- and quickly rushed to find video and transcripts online. I am also one of thousands who thought Colbert's performance at the dinner was both uproariously funny and, given his audience, appropriately scathing. In fact, after having reviewed the transcript and watched Colbert's performance again, I still believe as I did the first time I saw it: I think it's one of the finest comic performances I've ever seen.

I was not in the least surprised that professional courtiers like Richard Cohen panned the speech, or that the mainstream media chose to focus on President Bush's ho-hum skit with an impersonator while dropping Colbert's scathing performance down the memory hole. (Billmon explains. And let's not forget that the courtiers' outrage over tasteless jokes depends, apparently, on the status of the joker.) I was surprised, however, to find The Daily Howler among the ranks of those who thought Colbert's performance was "weak," "unfunny," and "inappropriate." The Howler, after all, has spent years engaging in witty, pointed criticism of the same press corps(e) and political establishment upon which Colbert heaps his comedic scorn. So surprised was I, in fact, that I immediately wrote to the Howler (aka Bob Somerby) and politely asked for an expanded explanation of his views on Colbert. I quickly received a polite and characteristically intelligent response that expanded upon the basic views the Howler had already put forward online (see also here): the jokes weren't that funny (witness the relative lack of audience laughter), but more importantly, Colbert was hired to entertain that audience -- not to challenge, insult, or lecture at them, which he clearly seemed more interested in doing.

I think I understand this view, but I do not agree with it. By way of hashing out my own views on Colbert, I wrote a letter of response to the Howler -- and if you'll forgive the indulgence, I thought I'd inaugurate this new blog by posting it here. This is hardly the most important issue in the world, I know, but hopefully the conclusion of the letter captures my sentiments as to why this might be worth arguing about. (I've changed some punctuation and added a few hyperlinks.)


I am not persuaded.

Colbert WAS funny. I don't propose to get into the question of whether the criteria for "funny" are objective or subjective; rather, I will point out that there are plenty of plausible alternative explanations for why *some* people at the dinner did not laugh:

  1. They were too . . . cognitively challenged? . . . to laugh (irony being a complicated thing, and some people in the room being, well, richer than they are smart).
  2. They were too afraid to laugh (the room being full of powerful people who might be the sort to hold grudges).
  3. They were too angry to laugh (because Colbert's barbs hit home, and they knew it).
I'm more sympathetic to your claim that Colbert's performance was inappropriate, but I still disagree. By way of defense, let me recall Jon Stewart's famous clash with Begala and Carlson (which I'm sure you've seen). Recall the growing discomfort on Carlson's pretty face as he realizes that Stewart isn't going to play by the standard rules of cross-media schmoozery (recite the expected scripts, don't criticize the media system, etc.). Recall Carlson's exasperated demand: "Be more funny!" (Recall also Carlson's desperate attempts to swing the conversation back to his one major talking point: "You were nice to Kerry! You're biased against Republicans!" etc.) Recall Stewart's response: "No. I'm not going to be your monkey." Stewart was able to get on their show and tell its hosts to their powered faces that their idiotic version of political "journalism" did more harm than good. That's something the average person could not do -- but Stewart, being a media celebrity, was able to get under their radar. Not long after Stewart's appearance, Begala and Carlson's show died -- and who mourns for it?

Did Stewart do the wrong thing in going on their show and refusing to play by "the implied rules" in that situation? I don't think so; I think he performed a valuable public service, in fact. And I think that Colbert did something quite similar.

Humor inherently involves the breaking of rules. Take the simplest joke: "I met a man who said he hadn't had a bite all week. So I bit him." If this is funny (delivery by Henny Youngman helps immensely), it's because "the rules" say that when people talk about "having a bite," they're using 'bite' metonymically -- they're really talking about eating. The jokester, however, violates this "rule" and takes 'bite' literally -- producing a momentary clash of two frames of reference. (Don't ask me to explain why humans respond to such cognitive phenomena by quaking and emitting odd noises; as a professional comic, you no doubt understand this magic better than I.)

Colbert's schtick involves rule-breaking on many levels at once. There's the relatively simple level of good wordplay. (Interviewing Jesse Jackson is "like boxing a glacier.") There's the more sophisticated level where the jokes refer to weightier matters of politics and public affairs. ("Enjoy that metaphor, by the way, because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is." "I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior." And the McCain bit -- I'm sorry, but that WAS funny. Reducing his "maverick" reputation to the question of which fork he's using with his salad -- that's a great example of descending incongruity.)

Above it all, there's the meta-level of Colbert's cable-host persona, who forthrightly favors "truthiness" rather than truth and feeling rather than fact. By looking and sounding like so many other cable blowhards while explicitly turning his back on rationality and critical thinking -- by explicitly embodying an absurd epistemology while posing as just another cable host -- Colbert leads his audience to consider the disturbing possibility that the people who shepherd our public discourse don't just look and sound like him but have a similar disdain for rationality and critical thought. That alone is a magnificent public service -- and it's one that only a TV-savvy comic could give. (Mind you, I haven't seen enough of Colbert's show to know whether he can sustain this successfully for half an hour every night; however, in the short clips I've seen, he does wonders with the persona he's created.) Indeed, using different techniques, you've performed a similarly magnificent public service for many years through your own lone-wolf website, eviscerating our joke of a media system for similar offenses. That's why I'm surprised by your reaction to Colbert: from my perspective, you both use your talents to great effect in a similar enterprise. (My respect for you has long been immense. My respect for Colbert shot up immensely after seeing that speech.)

At that dinner, though, there's still another level to consider. There's Colbert the TV satirist, who impersonates key aspects of the reigning media-political system in order to subject it to ridicule; and there's Colbert the TV celebrity, who is in his own way one of the very media-political elite whom he ridicules. I'll never be in Colbert's shoes, but I imagine that the overarching question for someone in his shoes last Saturday night was, Which I should I be? Should I seize the opportunity I've been given to walk right into the liars' den and satirize the inhabitants right to their faces (when they can't turn me off or ignore me)? Such opportunities come very rarely; for most people, in fact, they never come at all. Or should I be the good celebrity, the well-behaved "entertainer," and water my material down to where it gently amuses but does not provoke thought -- let alone, God forbid, uncomfortable thought? Should I risk breaking the "implied rules" that say that my place among the elite is to make them feel good, not to make them think? Or should I be a good, obedient little celebrity and behave as my betters expect? Or, to put it another way: Should I be a man, or should I be a monkey?

I for one am glad that Colbert chose to break some of those "implied rules." He was neither rude nor vulgar, and through his warped comic persona he managed to invoke many legitimate (HIGHLY legitimate) criticisms of a political administration and a media system that, let's face it, have heretofore largely managed to ignore or marginalize intelligent criticism. It may have been uncomfortable for the powdered folks at that dinner to have their own corruption, dishonesty, and insanity rubbed in their faces, but tough sh*t; for thousands of us out there on the receiving end of their corruption, dishonesty, and insanity, it was LIBERATING. Thanks to his celebrity, Colbert was able to get through their insulation and give them a new perspective on themselves -- force them to see themselves, if only for a moment, as thousands of us see them. He may even have done some of them a favor. I hesitate to invoke the ghost of Socrates, but maybe they should thank him for performing a critical service rather than hate him for being a critical nuisance.

In sum, I would argue that you place too much emphasis on the sense in which a comic performer is just a hired hand, brought in to do a job (make people laugh), expected otherwise to keep their place. That's true, but it's only a partial truth. A comedian is also an artist, and art is more than a job to be done or a commodity to be bought and sold. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that a civilization dies when it forgets this. Though it pains me to disagree with you, I think that Colbert made the right choice, and I think his art rose to the occasion.

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