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. . . 2001-10-22

rebecca's pocket doesn't seem to like CNN's new "Anthrax In America" brand, but I'm warmed by its echo of everything-turns-out-OK-at-the-end adventures like Tintin's or Asterix's....   Anthrix in Amerika

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As the adequate ship Bellona continues to drift from the shoals of journalistic carp and back to more peculiar waters, it seems only fair that we notify our fellow travelers of the two most extensive and well-balanced news congregators we've found: Follow Me Here (more commentary) and wood s lot (more range). Delights at any time; staples at present.

Readers who find themselves overcome by the mustiness of our admittedly somewhat unwholesome air are also alerted that a variety of new escape routes are posted once or twice a day.

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Critics rave

Yesterday's entry was undoubtedly our Worst. Episode. Ever. ("Sort of ponderous!" - Juliet Clark) But should you for some reason desire more of the similar, see David Chess, Ted Honderich (via the above-mentioned wood s lot), and Flash (Flash not required).

. . . 2001-10-23


Regarding our imaginary adventure, Aaron Mandel worries us:

I think the implication of the "A in B" title scheme is not just that everything turns out okay, but that A, the sympathetic star of some extended series of episodes, comes out of B essentially unchanged. At least, that's why I found CNN's slogan unnerving: it's reversed.

And, less whimsically, it implies gently that the anthrax came from outside America, while I'm starting to hear serious mumbles to the effect that the perpetrators may have been domestic terrorists.

While, regarding our Worst Episode Ever, Lawrence L. White reassures us:

Locating predictability as the turning point is, dare I say it, Wittgenstein-like: if you can't move the rock, find a different spot for the lever. One consideration: note that the legal problem is only interested in things after the fact. Examples from law seem tainted with a particular pathology, akin to the pathology of taxation-phobic voters preferring to spend more on punishing folks than on the less expensive & more effective (crime-prevention wise) technique of educating them.

I liked the entry because I have what Wittgenstein characterized as the philosophical illness. & I felt bad to think I might have infected you. I am, in part from the Wittgenstein treatment, mostly free of such vexations. Meaning I wouldn't think to try to think about those things again. Which is another reason I find Uschanov fascinating. In his case the medicine stokes the disease.

Yes, muddling legal responsiblity with determinism seems unnecessary (except, as I indicated, in the case of an omniscent omnipotent judge). Already the central ethical problem of punitive justice is that past events can't be undone. Why make matters even more difficult for our dear caretakers by asking whether future events can be?

To retreat to ordinary English usage: Could an individual change something that's already happened? No, that doesn't seem meaningful. Could she change something that hasn't happened yet? Certainly not -- if it doesn't exist, it can't be changed. Can she be part of something happening? Certainly she can, and the only way around that is to radically redefine what "she" refers to. That's where "free will" comes in, but (unlike schools) courts can have nothing to say about the present tense (except "I object!" or such like)....

As for personal regret, the "philosophical illness" holds even less terror than anthrax. No, what really bothered me about my post was first, that it seemed misshapen as argumentative prose, and second, more damningly, that it seemed redundant: that I'd added nothing to what was already available, even if we restrict ourselves to the Web.

Referring to the Bill of Artifactual Values kept in my wallet at all times:

  1. Best is to make potentially inaccessible work accessible: to publish & to lend. (Thus the obsession with the DMCA and so forth.)

  2. Next best is to publicize relatively unknown work & ideas or actually produce (heavens!) new work & ideas.

  3. Next best after that is to show new aspects of relatively available work & ideas -- to add to their audience or to their interest or at least to what might be considered their "understanding."

  4. But utterly indefensible -- vacuous in itself and friend to future vacuity -- is to throw more of the same thing into a pool of existing same thing. Art is perfectly justifiable in the age of mechanical reproduction; cover bands less so. (Therefrom springs my antagonism towards group products ranging from "academic canons" and "postmodernism" and "doctoral programs" to "news media" and "pundits" and "awards shows.")
It's a strictly additive morality based on a loosely Kantian metaphysics: anti-consensus, aestheticizing, disputatious (albeit and alongsides welcoming correction and contradiction), potentially anti-groove, perhaps dangerously-near-solipsist. But mine own. And by its light I sinned where neither Lawrence L. White, T. P. Uschanov, nor Ludwig Wittgenstein had.

. . . 2001-10-24

Anselm Dovetonsils must have been dipping into the classics again. My bottle of Bushmills is almost empty.

"One particular malefactor, Mrs Flanagan, inspired the name of a doll regularly abused by the Yeats children in bouts of primitive magic, since her defection was the constant excuse for their being denied a treat."
    - W.B. Yeats: A Life

Crazy Jane Curses the Tenant

For nothing can be sold or held
That has not been rented.

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The Customer Review they don't want you to see

The Library of America did an excellent job with its Raymond Chandler volumes, which lacked only the stories that Chandler had "cannibalized" into novels, but I can't say the same for its second (and final) volume of Dashiell Hammett, edited by Steven Marcus.

Of the three Hammett short story collections on my shelves, this $35 book replaces one: The Continental Op, edited by the same Steven Marcus. It includes only 5 of the 20 selections in the recent Nightmare Town repackaging; from The Big Knockover it leaves out "The Gatewood Caper," "Corkscrew" (the Continental Op goes cowboy), and, most unforgivably, "Tulip," an autobiographical meditation on storytelling which is the only sizable chunk of Hammett's postwar writing ever to surface. It does include "Woman in the Dark," currently in print as a thin single volume, dropping its subtitle ("A Novel of Dangerous Romance"); there may be good textual reasons for that decision, but they aren't described in this edition's notes.

Nice to get this work on acid-free paper, but the Library of America is intended to produce authoritative editions. It's unfortunate if predictable that this goal is forgotten when the series takes on the genre writers who need such attention most.

On the other hand, the complete novels of Dawn Powell!

. . . 2001-10-28

"I just wish webloggers (and the general public) were a tenth as upset about this as they seem to be about what the RIAA is doing, The Evil Empire That Is Microsoft (Windows XP, aieeee! Ooga booga!) or the SSSCA. It's not that we shouldn't worry about those three things, just that the USA Act (doublespeak lives) is far more threatening." -- ghost rocket

Blinded by keyhole No hiding place down here

Most of the people I've worked with through the years have shown little interest in social issues; I can't blame the EFF for occasionally pushing the funds-ahoy! issue of privacy any more than I blame the Republican party for targeting NRA members. But privacy laws only defend your freedom so long as no one cares enough about you to make an effort. In that sense, they're as obsolete as the Second Amendment: No handgun is going to protect you against a SWAT team and no PGP is going to protect you from seizure of your hard drives and backups.

We can't truly secure personal information. And that's just as well, since privacy laws are heavily relied upon by those in power -- for example, to prosecute a victim of police brutality who taped his own assault, to cover up election fraud, to launder money, and to hide embarrassingly glaring hypocrisies from voters. Note that video rental records only became legally regulated after a right wing leader was inconvenienced by them. And what makes a h4xor a "terrorist" -- as opposed to just another annoying-as-hell adolescent -- is the kiddie's unhealthy disregard of class lines when invading privacy.

The injustices of the War on Drugs are exacerbated rather than reduced by privacy rules: only those who can buy privacy are protected by the rules. Any security I gain by encrypting anti-administration sentiments is illusory if I can be jailed for anti-administration sentiments. There's no way to guarantee that a personal notebook full of written fantasies will be safe from prying eyes, but we can push for judges and legislators who won't try to criminalize personal notebooks of written fantasies. If the FBI grabs my credit card number, I want the FBI to be held liable for their database leaks; if my boss insists on tracking down my office-dynamiting fantasies, his curiosity should not count as my fireable offense. In short, the fights that matter most to me are not over protection of information, but over what gets done with the information that's collected.

That's not to say that our government fulfills any useful function when it attempts to circumvent or restrict our Fourth Amendment rights, or that habeas corpus should be suspended, or that unmonitored incompetent organizations should be given even greater opportunities to abuse power and misuse funds; nor is it to deny that encryption is to electronic communications as opaque envelopes are to postal services. To imprison and completely isolate someone for a month, making no charge and thus allowing no defense, ruining a life or two or three on little more than a whim, is an innovation well worth protesting. But "Privacy" seems a singularly uninspiring banner under which to rally.

Of course, this is just to say what principles I, personally, would be willing to risk life or (given my druthers) limb for; some people might find "Fair Use" or "Abortion Rights" banners just as dispiriting. My priorities, as previously admitted, are eccentric, and I'm not at all resentful when others prefer to direct their attention to issues like, for instance, starvation and torture.

Unfortunately, those of us who aren't millionaire politicians or professional pundits have to pick and choose our quixotic battles, as enticing as they all are each in their own way. At present there's even less chance of preventing crap like the USA Act than of improving public education and health care. And although moans often escape me involuntarily, I see no point in trying to force them. My friends have enough to put up with as it is.

. . . 2001-10-29

Although it was written before the latest admissions regarding the anthrax's probable source, don't miss this cogent New York Times op-ed (via both World New York and wood s lot, who don't miss much):

"As for Mr. Ashcroft, he has gone so far as to turn away firsthand information about domestic terrorism for political reasons...."

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Kyra Schon Bosco We're doing everything possible. Movie Comment: Night of the Living Dead

"But if in either period brain tentacles had come out of Ludwig's ears and started waving about, it would have been even better." -- UFO Breakfast
Even more than most mad scientist movies, David Cronenberg's dedicate themselves to a Nietszchean critique of ego: The will never swaggers more than when in the grip of compulsion, and consciousness feels feeblest precisely when it has most freedom of choice. Thus an admirably honest way to make a plot seem driven by "character development" is to let physical metamorphosis take over the actual steering.

But self-loathing remains a form of self-obsession, and more often than not remains a form of self-aggrandizement; Cronenberg's heroes seem awfully close to the wannabe-macho breast-beaters of mainstream indie film, even if they're more likely to crack ribs and break skin doing it. Nietzsche never successfully became Beaumarchais.

And so I often find myself instead turning for relief to less egocentric misanthropy, whether it be the lowbrow slapstick of Herschell Gordon Lewis or the political savvy of George Romero's more sophisticated social comedy.

As much as I like Dawn and Day of the Dead, their nostalgia for a Howard-Hawks-style camaraderie of competence sweetens the medicine a bit -- although, true, opposing camaraderies always seem ready to spring up in the interest of mutual annihilation. As much as I respect The Crazies, its ambition and budget clash a bit too noticeably -- although, true, now is probably a very good time to revisit its weave of biochemical weaponry, governmental incompetence, and mass panic. OK, never mind; the "although"s win.

But the point I was going after is that Night of the Living Dead is still about as bracing a pleasure as the terminal ironist can find. In a genuinely novel emergency, all human connections and reactions seem tailor-made for maximal entanglement. Love (familial, romantic, or purely neighborly) betrays, hate betrays, rigidity betrays, compromise betrays, and even Hawksian competence reduces to newsprint images of lynching parties and genocides. No one can think things out without immediately becoming slaves to their own analysis ("It's important to be right, isn't it?"); no plans can begin without a power struggle and no plans can be carried through without disastrous improvisation.

Despite the lapses in acting and pacing, Romero's decision to leave the script unchanged after Duane Jones's casting makes the movie far more time-resistent than, say, Shadows. And the next-to-final irony -- that the brave leader is wrong and the snivelling villain is right -- not that it really makes a difference, given the final one -- is not only satisfying in itself but a continuing source of new satisfactions in the form of viewers who miss the point and thus help prove it all over again.

. . . 2001-10-30

More Bad News

"Almost every time one takes a closer look at a film that is world-famous one has to face the sad fact that the film does not really exist in a form that seems acceptable."
   - the disheartening opening of Martin Koerber's notes on Dreyer's dreamlike (in the sense that all the action happened while I was asleep) Vampyr

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If a critic performs any useful function, it must be to spell things out, and I fear I may've been negligent yesterday in not explaining just how it can be pleasant and reassuring to contemplate mass death on the stumbling heels of love's failure, hate's failure, reason's failure, and passion's failure.

It's reassuring because it means that considerations of success and failure don't have to enter into our decisions to privilege love or hate or reason or passion. Since we're equally likely to lose or to lose regardless, we can decide to decide on some basis other than winning and losing. Whereas most stories seem to want to get us all in a muddle on that point, which after a while either makes us a little confused or a little suspicious of stories, which either way is a tiresome strain.

And it's pleasant (in the much quoted words of Homer Simpson) because I don't know them.

. . . 2001-10-31

Jeez, sudden death and germ warfare are such depressing ways to spend Halloween. Remember public speaking? Or technophobia? Now that was a fear....

If you have a DivX-capable AVI player (now you remember technophobia, right?), you can escape into yesteryear via 24 big MB of Ray Davis's and Christina La Sala's The Ichthyoid Syndrome. Its tinny sound and 100% guaranteed QuickCam video will have you reliving 1999 in all its autumnal splendor!

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A Halloween Prayer

On September 13 or so, I wrote out a weighty list of worries -- which I didn't post here because what would be the point? Even if "I couldn't imagine a worse administration to have in charge during wartime," I could always imagine that I was wrong; why invest my two cents in the burgeoning economy of panic?

Let's see how it's checking out:

From that list, the only miss was that we'd end up in an officially Christian holy war. Ready to replace that item, however, is the unpredicted extent to which our national leaders mollify their tiny-but-loud radical right-wing constituency by ignoring or actively covering up its links to "terror."

And in that they may be going too far, which leaves me with a glint of (petrified) hope.

By stickily associating a Democrat administration who'd screwed up foreign policy with scary domestic "off the pigs!" radicals (where the pigs were, I'm sorry to say, us), Nixon was able to oust it, eventually (to even Nixon's horror) mudsliding us all the way down to Reagan.

Well, academic "PC" can be annoying if you're trying to get an advanced degree in California (and rich frat boy "PC" can be annoying if you're trying to get any degree anywhere), but fundamentalist "PC" wants to kill you. Once again domestic radicals echo the rhetoric of a foreign enemy, once again we are the pigs to be offed by both, and in 2001 those in power and those insane are much more closely linked than in the late 1960s.

Give 'em enough rope and if they don't use it all up on us, they may get around to hanging themselves.

. . . 2001-11-02

Movie Comment: Wow! D00D! I am so P1557! because today came out this movie I missed by being at the hospital about this totally fat ugly man that -- get this! -- gets hooked up with this completely fat ugly woman, & it's absolutely humorously incongruous because -- get this! -- she's like nice, but he's like a complete asshole!



That's not right!

It's that it's totally humorously incongruous because like he's completely fat & ugly, BUT she's like absolutely fat & ugly! & like I missed it, & now like I'll never get to see it again!

. . . 2001-11-03

And in our top story tonight: a heroic giant bullfrog saves some tadpoles. (feel good news via Honeyguide)
The hoatzin   Elsewhere:
"A large, rubbery callous the size and shape of a human thumb joint is positioned on the end of the hoatzin's sternum, or breastbone. After a gluttonous bout of feeding, the bird squats down and rests its distended crop against a branch, using the callous as a tripodlike third leg. I quickly grew to loathe this behavior."

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

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2001 Ray Davis.