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. . . 2002-11-16

News that stays news

                   ... and this may explain the new stories weve
  begun to hear on the radio and tv    saddam hussein may be close
to having a nuclear capability    he may be only a year or two away
  from a nuclear device    this is not to say that he has an atomic
   bomb    or a delivery system    but we are reminded that he has
chemical and biological weapons    that could conceivably be
  deployed as warheads on his soviet built missiles    so there we
have it    more or less directly from our government    the
   scenario of the madman with the atomic bomb

           faced with this threat our president can have no choice
  but to destroy the iraqi nuclear capability and their arsenal of
biological and chemical weapons    this is the new determination

-- David Antin
from "Determination Suspension Diversion Digression Destruction"
performed November 27, 1990

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Bumper sticker*


* "Might" is more reasonable than "would," but then it wouldn't be a bumper sticker.

. . . 2002-11-17

The Public Language of Cats


The intersection of cat and English consists of three words: the query "Well?", the imperative "Now," and the rarely used "Yeah." Our results replicate observations of other classes of paranoid needy tourists, finding irritatingly insistant reliance on this limited shared vocabulary due to unrealistic expectations of communication via nuanced variations in prosody.

. . . 2002-11-18

The Asymmetry Within

I washed the dishes, listening with Anya-like anthropological curiosity to a pop song of petty romantic revenge -- something along the lines of "Now you've left me and I'm never coming back" -- and found myself wondering about Michael Jackson's ex-lovers. Not about who, or how old, or what sex they are, but about what they're feeling. Are they grimly pleased by the outcome of his morbid privacy and perfectionism? Are they shaken and depressed? Gleeful? resigned? bored? And if some mix, then sequentially, contrapuntally, or chordally?

It's an obsessively rehearsed story: the cat grooming its bald spots, the oil paintings daubed to mud, the hygiene-frenzied billionaire awash in filth and surrounded by excrement; wrapping one side, landscaping the other, until the entire cliff starts to crumble.... (And lord knows I've attended enough rehearsals: the promising little tune overcooked into indigestible glutin; the mild aperçu pounded flat, tanned, shredded, and threaded into an unreadable essay; the novel's first page rewritten back into originary chaos.)

One can't maintain a firm line between outside and inside while simultaneously trying to induce an ideal form. You think you're shaping clay and find you've been crushing eggshells. Self-control and the impulse to control one's image, control of materials and the impulse to control one's production -- they're hard to distinguish in theory, and an ugly overextended lifetime can be spent without learning to distinguish them in practice.

So then, naturally, I started to wonder how someone who works for John Poindexter feels.

Here we have a perjurer, conspirator, felon, and traitor with proven disregard for the liberty and lives of American citizens, but oh! how the Bushes ensure his continued professional prosperity! To the extent of giving him responsibility for the most ambitious domestic surveillance repository in history!

Working for such a man, would one consider oneself a thug? a pirate (garrh)? a broken-spined creature thrashing toward nutrient and shelter?

Or does one go to work each day to touch the hem of a stately senility?

Or does one view IAO as merely a scam along dot-com lines, except with less risk of discovery? "The fools are giving money away, and we'd be even more foolish not to take it"? And "we'd be even more evil than our masters if we didn't at least partly believe it"?

Because if we believe it, and if we take the money, then isn't it possible that it'll all come true?

Clicking through the PowerPoint, it's certainly easy enough to picture the next generation of Andreesens suiting up and making the Poindexter scene. Each moronic whimsy that pops from their doughboy foreheads has a sacred (and tax-funded) right to life, swaddled in 80 yards of management-blather and trundled off with a roll of hundred-grand bills into the ever colder, crueler world.

So how do Poindexter's workers go about their job? Cynically? Or willfully deluded? Or (as surmised by Carter Scholz in a barely different setting) in some unstable combination?

Your IAO Programs
TIA (Total Information Awareness System), Dr. John Poindexter
"The TIA program will develop and integrate information technologies into fully functional, leave-behind prototypes that are reliable, easy to install, and packaged with documentation and source code (though not necessarily complete in terms of desired features) that will enable the intelligence community to evaluate new technologies through experimentation, and rapidly transition it to operational use, as appropriate."

FutureMAP (Futures Markets Applied to Prediction), Dr. Mike Foster
"... will identify the types of market-based mechanisms that are most suitable to aggregate information in the defense context, will develop information systems to manage the markets, and will measure the effectiveness of markets for several tasks. Markets must also offer compensation that is ethically and legally satisfactory to all sectors involved, while remaining attractive enough to ensure full and continuous participation of individual parties."

BSS (Bio-Surveillance... umm... Someday?), Mr. Ted Senator
"A prototype bio-surveillance system with appropriate military and commercial data will be constructed for a citywide area of military interest and demonstrated in a series of field experiments by injecting simulated biological event data into the real-time data streams of the testbed system."

EARS (Effective, Affordable, Reusable Speech-to-Text), Mr. Charles Wayne
"EARS encompasses wide-ranging, multidisciplinary research; quantitative evaluations of algorithm accuracy and utility; and efficient technology demonstration prototypes."

EELD (Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery), Mr. Ted Senator
"EELDís initial activities demonstrated the feasibility of extracting relationships from text...."

Genisys, Lt Col Douglas Dyer, PhD [notice how Dyer ducks the acronym convention; watch out for this guy]
A new database platform. No, really. Because "current database technology is clearly insufficient." Any Ada programmers reading this? "Planned Accomplishments: FY02: Genisys will produce several prototype designs consistent with program goals."

Genoa, Lt Col Douglas Dyer, PhD
"Genoa provides analyst tools to augment human cognitive processes and aid understanding of complex arguments." The slide for this baby is appropriately mind-blowing.

Genoa II, Mr. Thomas Armour
"Cognitive aids enabling humans and machines to think together faster, smarter, and 'jointer'." Projected jointerizers include "means to overcome the biases and limitations of the human cognitive system" and "'cognitive amplifiers' that help teams of people rapidly and fully comprehend complicated and uncertain situations." The slide for this son-of-baby is appropriately mind-numbing.
Foreman, Smelter, Dump Truck Operator
Never trust a bald smelter in a three-piece suit

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Rafe Colburn makes a good point but misses the bad one:

The simple fact is that resources for analyzing information are limited, even for the federal government. This became completely obvious in the months after 9/11, when it was gradually revealed that we had more than enough information to track down the hijackers, but we didn't have the resources to piece it all together. This new system is aimed at gathering huge additional amounts of information...
This would be a legitimate argument against IAO if legitimate arguments counted. But national security is not the goal. I'm not talking some "Who watches the watchmen?" subtlety here. If Al Qaeda has a nuclear weapon, John Poindexter is probably who supplied it. (Only for the good of the Party, of course.)

No, the goal of Total Information Awareness is to help the administration follow its real vocation: maintaining political power through hypocrisy; that is, through a combination of personal secrecy and public libel. The Bush family relies on confidential deals, insider trading, erased records, and so on, while the far-right Republican Party has proven to its own satisfaction that any criticism of their policies can be deflected by launching non-sequitur counterattacks on their critics. Intelligence agencies -- "I know everything about you; you know nothing about me" -- are the coziest nests for such rodents.

Poindexter's fully integrated database of information on American citizens would, Colburn's right, be useless for spotting terrorists or predicting attacks. But for tracking down damaging information on a named target, it would work miracles. If any inconvenient witness starts to bring up late-night transfers of funds to foreign banks, or mysterious absences from duty, or college drug use, or vote tampering, or lying under oath, or even what the daughters are doing, just submit a simple query, and opportunities for harassment, news leaks, or assassination will be available in record time.

Kenneth Starr in a box, 24-by-7! Now that's worth paying for!

. . . 2002-11-22

The History Department is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake

Perhaps some web-wafted premonition explains the middle-of-the-night scrawl I found with bemusement and distrust in my notebook early this morning:

"Mutual contempt, fear, dependency, and escape hatch. A free citizenry is to military personnel as autodidacts are to academics."

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Two cribs for the FAQ sheet

  1. It is when you superimpose one fixed structure over all of the possible ensembles of personal and social canons that you get a "classic," which is essentially a canon with power. And thatís not about writing or literature or literary value. Thatís about power, pure and simple: the power canon.

  2. There is a genuine value to spending oneís time talking intensely about something you love with people who share that interest. But I am very sensitive to the proclivity of the academy toward abusive relationships, both of faculty and students. And... I've never been offered an academic position that did not propose to cut my earnings by at least 40 per cent per year.
- with thanks to Ron Silliman for sitting at the desk to the front and right of me

. . . 2002-11-28

"But Miles..."

According to novels, middle-aged men spend a lot of time thinking about some woman they saw in the street twenty years ago but never met. Me, I've been thinking a lot about this cartoon I saw in a magazine but haven't been able to find a copy of:

                                    A MAN
                                   WITH AN
                                   GRIN AND
                                   A CHEAP
    WORRIED PIG:                   OPEN A
That's a poke, I tell               LARGE
 you! I know a poke                BULGING
   when I see one.                  SACK
             WIDE-EYED PIG:        ACROSS
               But Miles,           THE
          it's full of garbage!    GROUND

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Thanksgiving - Hanukah - James Bond Crossover Special

For a limited time only, Ba-lue Mun-deii Ba-lues-Are falls on a Thursday this month.

. . . 2002-12-02

Inside every good sadist is a masochist enjoying the struggle to get out.

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Unsolicited submission

You follow the Master's every arbitrary rule and margin to the letter and letterface, and still you're rejected with barely a glance. Again, and again, you pay your fee, suffer your effortful agonies, lick the flap, and await your next rejection -- but how else to know the thrill of sensing a hint of approval in the curt dismissal? with someday the hope of being submitted to the curt dismissals of the Master's subscription list?

  (with abject apologies to Pat Califia & the Happy Tutor)

. . . 2002-12-03

Non serviam

Since Kraft-Ebbing first entered the adjectives "sadistic" and "masochistic" into play, the world has persistently confused the practices of S&M or B&D with the very convenient metaphors to be drawn from such practices. Whether arising through ignorance or willful laziness, this confusion results in bigotry, misdirection (e.g., "Hitler was evil because he was kinky"), and lots of really awful movies.

The happy ending of Samuel R. Delany's Hogg comes when the young protagonist untangles sexual degradation from its philosophical and political associations; if the ending doesn't seem all that happy, that says more about our narrative expectations than about the wisdom of his choice. But such untangling seems unlikely to spread: confusion is too useful for instigating self-righteousness on the one hand (upraised to strike) and self-promotion on the other hand (chained to the bed).

Those aggrandizing misconceptions have helped disseminate bondage gear through pop culture as an all-purpose marker for "perversion," and even for the sexual impulse itself. From my quiet cove here in the Vanilla Straits, they seem reminiscent of the monotheist publicity agents for Satan, a figure of no great appeal or import until he's positioned as the solitary alternative to an omniscient omnipotent God.

I suppose that's why they call it "demonizing."

. . . 2002-12-04

Master narrative

Not that metaphor alone has heightened the profile of S&M&B&D. The magic of storytelling has been busy, too: most of the best pornographic fiction I've read was written by discipliners or disciplined, with the next largest category, far behind, probably being tales of seduction. This is a bit of a personal disappointment since I find neither suspense nor props at all erotic, but there's little to be done about it. Role-playing power games and seductions are both ways of sexualizing narrative itself, and so they'll naturally have a leg up when it comes to narration. O is nothing without her Story, and her Story, like all stories, is no story until strapped into a recognizable form.

Whereas even the best-crafted of vanilla filth is likely to break apart into clinical observations, or into nostalgically recollected vignettes, or to wake up and find itself in charge of a cellarfull of slaves. Those of us for whom sex is a welcome escape from narrative, a way to focus on the sensual rather than the thought and to meditate on the real rather than the anticipated, can hardly complain when narrative snubs us.

. . . 2002-12-05


You can always tell a hetero white male by the inanity of our complaints. (But you can't tell us much! Ha!)

One of my fellows once vented that he felt insulted by the label "vanilla" and wished it could be replaced with something more appealing.

"But it's perfectly appropriate!" I vented back. "Vanilla isn't vanilla because it's bland; it just seems that way to people who don't like vanilla or who do like blandness. Vanilla is vanilla because it's the standard; it's what you expect to find. Just because vanilla is common doesn't keep vanilla from having a very distinctive flavor, and it doesn't keep aficionados from being passionate about their preferences -- for French vanilla, for example."

My vent was longer, so I won.

. . . 2002-12-10

The Nature of Economies by Jane Jacobs

Jacobs likens economy to ecology, optimistically, at short small book-length, and in dialog form. It's an appealing little package whose appeals carry some problems.

But what meat's there is sweet, the tastiest morsel being her attempt at reformulating economic health.
... to be continued ...

. . . 2002-12-11

The Nature of Economies by Jane Jacobs, cont.

Jacobs first sketches the free-trade economist's notion of the export multiplier: the vitality of an economy can be estimated by weighing its exports (including such "exports" as tourism) against its imports, since the money brought in by excess exports and the added work that goes into supporting a population of excess exporters will be more than enough to keep the locals busy fat and sassy bees.

In the real world this formula has played out variably well, often distinctly unwell. Which, as Jacobs points out, makes it less of a formula than a hypothesis in need of amendment, and she reasonably suggests that we also take into account what's happening within the economy.

A community enjoyed by non-economists will likely include a secure diversity of local businesses and a reasonable distribution of local resources. In Jacobs's formulation, this localized recombinatrics is "import stretching" (where "imports" include geographical advantages and human skills), and it's not strictly correlated with increased summed export. She compares a prosperous economy to the biomass and diversity of a lush ecosystem. If you treat a rain forest as a black box, you may not find a startling amount of import or export going on, but it still thrives, and what it's largely thriving on is itself. The energy (water, sunlight, minerals) that enters the system is swapped around in a multitude of ways over a multitude of lives before leaving the system.

Expansion depends on capturing and using transient energy. The more different means a system possesses for recapturing, using, and passing around energy before its discharge from the system, the larger are the cumulative consequences of the energy it receives.
This is a richly suggestive analogy which matches common perception as well as the Greenwich Village utopia of Jacobs's earlier books. Factory farms, company towns, and single-industry cities may show fine import-export ratios, but there are no theres there because the black boxes are too efficient. Although economists may insist that you can never be too rich or too thin, a cholera victim isn't a picture of health; yeah, there's the awesome beauty of Death Valley and the Antarctic wastes, but if that's all there is everywhere it gets old in a hurry.

So far, so very good. "Economists would do better to abandon export-multiplier ratios and turn their attention to import-stretching ratios."

But at those naughty economists is where Jacobs stops, and it's not nearly far enough. Let's agree that the number of businesses matters more than the gross size of a few businesses, and the distribution of profits matters more than the gross sum of a few profits. Having so agreed, need we worry about any foes other than myopic economists and the committees misled by them?

I think we do, because it's not just academics who emphasize import / export ratios. Not everyone wants to live in a thriving rain-forest ecology (in my own bedroom, I maintain stringent restrictions on biodiversity), and not everyone wants to live in a thriving economy. Many a dictator and plutocrat prefers their current arrangement, and Google finds a high proportion of "multiplier effect" citations among the rosy forecasts of third-world governments.

Jacobs is right that efficiency isn't always what's needed for the health of the citizenry at large, and right that businesses don't always become more efficient with expansion. However, expansion always does concentrate more capital into a fewer number of hands. And so, efficient or not, healthy or not, supported by Harvard Business School grads or not, there will always be pressure for larger and more centralized businesses because people with power want more power and they're in a good position to get it. Free trade economics is less a science or a technology than an assuager of conscience; earlier analysts posited a similar magical correspondence between the health of the king and the health of the kingdom.

And when the chickens come home to roost, one can always slaughter the chickens and move elsewhere. Imperialism from ancient Egypt and Greece through Fascist populists and American corporations has been a matter of conquering other territory with the power seized from one's own: think globally, leech locally. The unseen hand that coordinates the health of an economy with the profitability of its wealthiest business owners -- like the unseen hand that protects the balance of nature -- can easily be held in check long enough for personal capital to be made and permanent waste to be laid. (I once asked Juliet Clark what happened to the self-sufficiency of rain-forested New Zealand, and she shrugged: "When every economy is forced to be a global economy....")

Is there any counterbalance? Well, if humans are part of biology, and money and trade are therefore part of biology, then government and politics must also be part of biology -- and laws (including protectionist laws) might be our only pseudo-biological defense against pseudo-biological catastrophe. Government isn't going away any more than trade is. When libertarians say that government needs to stay out of business, they simply turn government over to those with no such compunctions: monopolists and profiteers.

Very few of us complacent argumentative coffee-swillers can compare to Jane Jacobs: at least two North American cities might have fallen apart without her work. But when she tells their hard-fought and forever-tenuous victories as a story of the little people taking on big government rather than as a story of a government's policy being changed by its own citizens, she doesn't improve our chances to keep her winnings.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2002 Ray Davis.