January 31, 2005

Neat New Things

Still no action on the activity log after 24 hours. I'm beginning to think the new version of MT doesn't keep track of denied comments. There have been a few attempted spams on our blogs in the past 24 hours, but none of them were posted. It seems that if an unregistered user tries to comment on an entry older than a couple of weeks back and it isn't just denied out-of-hand because it contains a blacklisted string or URL, MT-Blacklist v2.04 automatically sends it via email for moderation before allowing it to appear. I guess I need to dig through the MT-Blacklist docs a little more deeply to find out what other surprises are in store, but so far, me likey.

Posted by Observer at 07:27 PM | Comments (0)

Spinning the Quagmire

James Wolcott watched the corporate media cheerlead the Iraqi elections yesterday so I didn't have to:

Yesterday on one of the Fox financial shows, James Rogers, author of Investment Biker, commodities guru, and neighbor-down-the-block (an utterly irrelevant detail I thought I'd toss in to make this blog sound more "personal"), was asked by host Neil Cavuto whether the elections in Iraq would be successful. Rogers said, "They'll be successful because the media will say they're successful," adding impishly, "Fox News probably already has the results."

Rogers was right. Barring catastrophic violence, the media was prepared to hail the elections as a triumphant day for Democracy. Despite all the talk about the Liberal Media playing spoilsport and wanting the elections to fail (a syndicated cartoon strip--State of the Union, by Carl Moore, the worst scrawler ever to pick up an eyeliner pencil and doodle in the dark, depicted "the liberal media" trying to stomp out the balloting in league with Arab tyrants and terrorists), the coverage yesterday was resolutely upbeat and near-ecstatic today.

Yesterday, CNN had cameras around the U.S. where Iraqi expats were voting...one correspondent mentioned that only 26,000 Iraqi exiles out of nearly a quarter million eligible to vote even bothered to register, a remark completely ignored by the glossy, Desperate Housewives-looking anchor, who chirped something about the "pride" beaming from every face. Dan Rather couldn't have sounded more positive about what was unfolding, talking about the blue ink on the thumbs of voters bearing the indelible sign of freedom, etc., not that such inspirational talk will do him a damn bit of good with his fanged detractors.

Peter Jennings also highlighted the most positive developments taking place, with none of the raised eyebrows or sardonic undertones for which he's always accused. No, despite all the talk of the Liberal Media or the MSM sympathizing with the insurgents and rooting for disaster, the coverage was geared for good news. Robert Fisk, in the Independent UK:

"The media boys and girls will be expected to play along with this. 'Transition of power,' says the hourly logo on CNN's live coverage of the election, though the poll is for a parliament to write a constitution and the men who will form a majority within it will have no power.

"They have no control over their oil, no authority over the streets of Baghdad, let alone the rest of the country, no workable army or loyal police force. Their power is that of the American military and its 150,000 soldiers whom we could see at the main Baghdad intersections yesterday.

"The big television networks have been given a list of five polling stations where they will be 'allowed' to film. Close inspection of the list shows that four of the five are in Shia Muslim areasď where the polling will probably be high ‚Äď and one in an upmarket Sunni area where it will be moderate. Every working class Sunni polling station will be out of bounds to the press. I wonder if the television lads will tell us that today when they show voters 'flocking' to the polls."

They did just that.

After all the damn headlines I've seen from online media sources about "Iraqis brave bombs" or the "defiant Iraqi electorate" standing up to the insurg-, uh, terrorists! yeah! terrorists!, I think I'm going to smack around the next ConservaBorg I see who talks about "the good news the media just won't report from Iraq". [Hell, how can you report *any* news when you are hiding out in your hotel room because the streets aren't safe?]

You know, maybe we *have* turned the corner with this landmark. I mean, I doubt it because we've been told about so many wonderful landmarks in the past, but for the sake of our troops and our country, you have to hope for the best.

But at the same time, you have to be realistic. You can't just cover your ears and say "not listening!" like Gollum just because there is some bad news. Unless you are a member of the ConservaBorg, in which case you can't handle it when someone like Ted Kennedy criticizes the war:

The ending of the rule of Saddam Hussein was supposed to lessen violence and bring an irresistible wave of democracy to the Middle East.† It hasnít.† Saddam Husseinís capture was supposed to quell the violence.† It didnít.† The transfer of sovereignty was supposed to be the breakthrough.† It wasnít.† The military operation in Fallujah was supposed to break the back of the insurgency.† It didnít.

The 1400 Americans killed in Iraq and the 10,000 American casualties are the equivalent of a full division of our Army Ė and we only have ten active divisions.

Idiot, right-wing nutballs are trying to equate Kennedy's comments with Trent Lott's pre-segregationist Strom Thurmond remarks. Well, duh. They've been trying to make these false equalities since Safire. Safire worked for Nixon and has always tried to downplay Watergate. He's the one who pushed the whole -gate meme and got the media (and everyone else, including me) to call every scandal something-gate so that Watergate doesn't seem so bad. Sorry, the equivalence just isn't there most of the time.

Anyway, Kos has some good thoughts on the Big Picture in Iraq. Things that were true before the election. Things that are still true today. Things that are almost certainly still going to be true after the election, despite what the cheerleading bobbleheads on TV tell you:

This war is long past lost. Time to pack it in, and save the lives of our men and women in uniform that will otherwise face a barrage of bullets and RPG rounds during their extended stay in the desert.

In the feverish minds of the war apologists, it doesn't matter that no WMDs were found, that torture chambers are still open for business, that this war is now rivaling Saddam's brutality for sheer number of Iraqis killed, that the Army, Marines, and National Guard are all having trouble recruiting, that our equipment is degrading to the point where we're creating a hollow military, that the war is costing us $200 billion and counting, that Israel is not safer as a †result of this war, that nearly 1,600 allied troops and counting have died on this fool's errand, that the US's original choice to lead Iraq -- Chalabi -- was an Iranian spy who told our enemies that we had cracked their communications code, that most of Iraq is not under government control, that terrorists are now using the lawlessness in Iraq to recruit and train a whole new generation of terrorists, that our "Coalition of the Willing" is now a mere shell of its former self, that the world hates the United States, that the Euro is suddenly the hot currency, that Europe and Asia are both creating security organizations excluding the US, and that tens of thousands of our soldiers are coming home physically and mentally maimed.

None of that matters to them.

But they see the war getting out of hand. They've see our chances of victory go from little to nothing. And they've got to blame someone. Anyone. And of course, it can't be Saint George, because he's perfect and can do no wrong. So blame Kennedy. Blame Boxer. Blame France. Blame Canada. Blame anti-war bloggers. Because it is they who have botched up the Iraqi campaign to the point of no hope. If it wasn't for them, our troops would still be basking in a flood of rose petals.

The faith-based lunatics taking up residence in the White House and the Pentagon have ample ideological company in Tennessee law schools and other hidey holes of the wingnut blogosphere.

But at the end of the day, whether they'll ever admit it or not -- we were right, they were wrong. Reality isn't being too kind to their side.

For either side at this point, being right about Iraq will constitute a pretty horrible Pyrrhic victory.

Juan Cole has more to say about the election process in Iraq. The man knows what he is talking about, and he isn't a member of the ConservaBorg, which means (1) you should read what he has to say and (2) you can be sure the Boy King won't read what he has to say.

Posted by Observer at 07:13 AM | Comments (0)

January 30, 2005

Pirate Boy

I was explaining to Michelle about why I am getting the "Starblazers" DVD series for the boys from Netflix. When I was a kid, "Starblazers" would come on in the afternoons about a half-hour after I got home from school. I pretty much never missed it, and it was my first experience was an anime series (as opposed to the typical adventure cartoons in which the plots never extended beyond a single episode).

I used to be into that show so much (this was in 1979-1980 when it came out, and I was 11-12 years old) that I would tape record episodes while watching the show so that I could listen to them later in my room. I guess I was already a pirate at that point since I was making unauthorized recordings and listening to them multiple times later. :) You have to understand this was before video games. If I had had a GameCube or the like back then, I probably never would have watched TV.

Anyway, watching it again now, I'm pretty amazed at how awful it is compared to the more modern-day stuff. The animation quality is horrible. The music is awful, lots of 70's influence in there (though I do like the little aria on the main menu which is an excerpt from the show's background music). Almost like a parody of "Starship Troopers", which was almost a parody of itself. The boys seem to be into it, though, so I'll keep going with it. Not too many movies on Netflix right now that I'm just chomping at the bit to see.

We finished watching the entire Robotech series. Now that's one I wanted to watch but it was on every morning at 8am. I had to leave for school by 8:15, though, so I always missed at least half the episode and often more than that because I was getting ready to go. The boys really liked it, so I'm glad we went though the set.

Oh, and by the way, prior to my changing the name of the comment script from mt-comments.cgi to (something random).cgi, we were denying an average of one spam per minute for the past several months. It was really that bad. Since I changed that filename, we have had zero spam attempts in the past four hours. So that simple change so far has led to a factor of 1000 better spam defense. I'll report again in a week.

Posted by Observer at 02:14 PM | Comments (2)

The Root of All Evil

After messing around with the new MT v3.15 installation, I discovered that our ISP has now decided to give us SSH access! I don't think I've used any Unix commands in at least five years (since I ran my first web server on my office Mac using Apache), but it's all flooding back. tar xvf, man, vi commands, chmod, rm -r, ls ../.. | more. Ah, what fun.

I used my newfound root power to upgrade the installation of MT-Blacklist, which was needed in order to make comments work properly in the new version of MT. Whether comments truly work properly now remains to be seen, but I think they're ok. The only problem is that in this new version of MT, a lot of the buttons don't work properly with any Mac browser interface. I check a box or push a button, and it acts like nothing happened. There are ways around it, but it's a pain.

In the five minutes it took to uninstall the old version of MT and install/activate the new version, I was spammed once despite my renaming my mt-comments script. Oh well, I guess that wasn't a perfect solution, but maybe it will help in the long run.

Posted by Observer at 11:23 AM | Comments (2)

January 29, 2005

Upgrade(?)

We've gotten the upgrade to MT v3.15 now, and I've rebuilt my web pages accordingly. I've also taken some steps to further reduce comment spam, namely renaming the mt-comments script. The change should be transparent and seamless, and maybe this will reduce some spam. Actually, though, the blacklist has been working very well during the past couple of months once I added a broader class of strings to filter (e.g. -porn, -sex, -holdem, free-, etc). I've gone from 99% removal to 99.99%, and this may take it a couple of steps further. We'll see. Once the next version of MT-Blacklist gets out of Beta, that may help, too.

Comments aren't working properly at this point, but we should fix that by sometime tomorrow. It's not related to the anti-spam measures, just something screwy with the preferences form and how it interacts with browsers on a Mac.

Posted by Observer at 07:23 PM | Comments (0)

Stay Out of My Lecture Hall

Chris Bowers over at MyDD has a very timely post about the next logical step for the ConservaBorg anti-reality crowd: stifling academic freedom. It seems a stupid legislator in Ohio doesn't like all those liberal college professors indoctrinating their students with disloyal and traitorous notions like voting Democratic or what have you. So when a conservative sees something he doesn't like, what's the response?

Well, if you said "let the market decide" or some other such libertarian tripe, that's just precious. So Reagan-esque. So classic. But wrong. See, today's conservatives intend to use the gummint to control things they don't like because, well, you see, apparently the gummint is now our friend. The morons in Ohio want to pass a law requiring some kind of equal time for both sides in the classroom (huh, how about reviving the "Fairness Doctrine" on talk radio while you're at it, big guy). Does that mean we get to teach about evolution at Bible colleges, too?

Chris sums it up well:

It is amazing how often conservatives decry "relativists" until it is time for their views to undergo peer review. Then, all views must be presented side by side because, after all, everything is just opinion, and as valid as everything else, right?

I talk about issues like global warming in my class, at length, and I present it fairly (see Stupid Conservative Myth #5 for an example). I couldn't invite some oil company shill into my class to talk about how fossil fuel burning is wonderful. I just couldn't do it in good conscience. It's not that I would worry about what the class would think or believe. I'd just be plain embarrassed for the guy because I'd make a fool of him.

Posted by Observer at 11:06 AM | Comments (3)

January 28, 2005

Notorious

There are ways to get big and get noticed and self-promote. I know how to do it, seen it happen. It takes a lot of time. Here's a quick how-to:

You build up a reputation through commenting effectively on the top 10-20 blogs (which is the most time-consuming part, pumping your signal above an incredible amount of noise), then you email lots of 2nd and 3rd tier bloggers (I'm currently way down on the food chain, probably 5th or 6th tier according to the ecosystem) and ask for cross-links. You have to be savvy enough to make good, original comments that will get noticed, of course.

Next, you send your best posts around a couple times a week (better, put them into comment sections of larger blogs where they fit) and try to get quoted without being too annoying, then repeat with the first-tier bloggers and hope you have enough name recognition that they don't delete your email out of hand, etc. That's the part that I don't know is possible at this point unless you have a personal connection somehow or incredibly lucky timing. Once you get your traffic high enough to be noticed by memeorandum, Cursor, the Daou Report or something similar, you've got it made (but it is still a ton of work to stay among the top).

Not sure if I could get into the top 100 blogs at this point if I wanted to, but if I had started a blog for that purpose two years ago, I could have. If I started doing all that stuff, I would have to take this blog seriously and the rest of my life a lot less seriously. Once the blog isn't for me, it would stop being a fun hobby and start being a chore.

I made the same choice with on-line gaming (Clan Lord). When I didn't have a life, it was easy to gain notoriety and ranks. Once Michelle and I got together, I still don't know how we managed to play so much while everything else was going on, but I guess we eventually succumbed to reality and picked real life over CL. I wouldn't go back down that path with gaming or my blog. Real life is way too much fun (and busy) now, a fact that makes me happy every day.

Plus, I already get to influence plenty of impressionable minds in real life, so I don't need to compensate by completely externalizing the purpose of this blog for all of you closed-minded Covenant-hating freaks. :)

Posted by Observer at 07:06 AM | Comments (9)

January 27, 2005

Market Savvy

Jesus' General writes a letter to ConservaBorg news central (otherwise known as NewsMax) CEO, Christopher Ruddy:

Dear Mr. Ruddy ,

After reading an article at NewsMax today, I decided to click on the advertisement links to see what wares you're offering to your readers. It was an interesting mix of products--one that I've seen nowhere else. Of the sixteen ads, five touted male enhancement products and seduction secrets, four promoted books and videotapes on street fighting, and five tempted readers with the secrets of instant wealth.

As I considered this rather unconventional mix, I suddenly realized that all of these ads are based on a central theme: impotence. "You're nothing, you little wimp," the ads seem to scream, "buy our product and you'll become a real man."

At that moment, I realized that I am not alone--there are others who lost their little soldiers in the Klinton Wars --so many others in fact, that a popular web-based news organization has become a marketing Mecca for angry, impotent, conservative men like myself. You've found your niche. [...]

If I ever get huge and start accepting ads on this site, I promise it will only be for cool stuff that only cool people would buy. I will only do Amazon payola links for books that are really good. And I'll probably have a bunch of ThinkGeek ads.

Posted by Observer at 02:09 PM | Comments (6)

January 26, 2005

Another One Wakes Up

Via Eric Alterman, here it is, from the proverbial horse's mouth: Yet another lifelong movement conservative is coming to terms with the fact that this administration is anything but conservative:

Dr. Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy during 1981-82. He was also Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review.

There are some serious nutball conservative bona fides, let me tell ya.

I remember when friends would excitedly telephone to report that Rush Limbaugh or G. Gordon Liddy had just read one of my syndicated columns over the air. That was before I became a critic of the US invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration, and the neoconservative ideologues who have seized control of the US government.

America has blundered into a needless and dangerous war, and fully half of the country's population is enthusiastic. Many Christians think that war in the Middle East signals "end times" and that they are about to be wafted up to heaven. Many patriots think that, finally, America is standing up for itself and demonstrating its righteous might. [...]

There was a time when I could rant about the "liberal media" with the best of them. But in recent years I have puzzled over the precise location of the "liberal media."

Not so long ago I would have identified the liberal media as the New York Times and Washington Post, CNN and the three TV networks, and National Public Radio. But both the Times and the Post fell for the Bush administration's lies about WMD and supported the US invasion of Iraq. On balance CNN, the networks, and NPR have not made an issue of the Bush administration's changing explanations for the invasion. [...]

With a quote like this, I couldn't resist. It's nice for a true conservative to come out from behind the curtain with a smile and a chuckle, saying, "Awww, come on, you guys, this whole liberal media one-note song is ... wait, you thought we were serious?"

There appears to be a large number of Americans who are prepared to kill anyone for George Bush.

Or at least make asses of themselves by making the kind of physical threats we were all supposed to grow out of by about the third grade.

The Iraqi War is serving as a great catharsis for multiple conservative frustrations: job loss, drugs, crime, homosexuals, pornography, female promiscuity, abortion, restrictions on prayer in public places, Darwinism and attacks on religion. Liberals are the cause. Liberals are against America. Anyone against the war is against America and is a liberal. "You are with us or against us."

This is the mindset of delusion, and delusion permits no facts or analysis. Blind emotion rules. Americans are right and everyone else is wrong. End of the debate.

That, gentle reader, is the full extent of talk radio, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal Editorial page, National Review, the Weekly Standard, and, indeed, of the entire concentrated corporate media where noncontroversy in the interest of advertising revenue rules.

Sound crazy? Sit and watch a couple of hours of Fox News Channel sometime, as I was forced to do today while waiting with my wife at an INS regional office. They spent pretty much the whole time trying to whip the nutball brigade into a frenzy over the fact that "Passion of the Christ" didn't get nominated for Best Picture, but then their whole outrage thing was sorta short-circuited by the fact that "Fahrenheit 9/11" didn't get nominated for anything. Wait, look! War on Terror! Iraq! Al Qaeda! Iraq!

Once upon a time there was a liberal media. It developed out of the Great Depression and the New Deal. Liberals believed that the private sector is the source of greed that must be restrained by government acting in the public interest. The liberals' mistake was to identify morality with government. Liberals had great suspicion of private power and insufficient suspicion of the power and inclination of government to do good.

Liberals became Benthamites (after Jeremy Bentham). They believed that as the people controlled government through democracy, there was no reason to fear government power, which should be increased in order to accomplish more good.

The conservative movement that I grew up in did not share the liberals' abiding faith in government. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

And this is why I am a liberal at heart. Some things are just better done on large scales. Social Security is a good one. National defense. Road building. Health care/insurance. Those sorts of things. As a liberal, I do not fully trust the government on anything. Being a liberal doesn't mean you suddenly exempt your government from any kind of accountability (that seems to be a hallmark of Bush-supporters, actually). It just means that you trust the government with power more than you trust profit-oriented corporations, and history has indicated that is wise. It isn't perfect. There are costs (like less efficiency, normally, greater integrity and transparency, normally). Anyway...

Today it is liberals, not conservatives, who endeavor to defend civil liberties from the state. Conservatives have been won around to the old liberal view that as long as government power is in their hands, there is no reason to fear it or to limit it. Thus, the Patriot Act, which permits government to suspend a person's civil liberty by calling him a terrorist with or without proof. Thus, preemptive war, which permits the President to invade other countries based on unverified assertions.

This is why it turns my stomach to hear gun-rights people quote Ben Franklin at me ("Those who give up freedom for security deserve neither" or something along those lines) while saying the Patriot Act is just fucking awesome because the Boy King sez so.

Delusion is still the defining characteristic of the Bush administration. We have smashed Fallujah, a city of 300,000, only to discover that the 10,000 US Marines are bogged down in the ruins of the city. If the Marines leave, the "defeated" insurgents will return. Meanwhile the insurgents have moved on to destabilize Mosul, a city five times as large. Thus, the call for more US troops.

There are no more troops. Our former allies are not going to send troops. The only way the Bush administration can continue with its Iraq policy is to reinstate the draft.

When the draft is reinstated, conservatives will loudly proclaim their pride that their sons, fathers, husbands and brothers are going to die for "our freedom." Not a single one of them will be able to explain why destroying Iraqi cities and occupying the ruins are necessary for "our freedom." But this inability will not lessen the enthusiasm for the project. To protect their delusions from "reality-based" critics, they will demand that the critics be arrested for treason and silenced. Many encouraged by talk radio already speak this way.

Not to mention moron blog trolls.

Because of the triumph of delusional "new conservatives" and the demise of the liberal media, this war is different from the Vietnam war. As more Americans are killed and maimed in the pointless carnage, more Americans have a powerful emotional stake that the war not be lost and not be in vain. Trapped in violence and unable to admit mistake, a reckless administration will escalate.

The rapidly collapsing US dollar is hard evidence that the world sees the US as bankrupt. Flight from the dollar as the reserve currency will adversely impact American living standards, which are already falling as a result of job outsourcing and offshore production. The US cannot afford a costly and interminable war.

Falling living standards and inability to impose our will on the Middle East will result in great frustrations that will diminish our country.

This, in the end, is why the election of 2004 was so sad to me. It's not that the guy I supported lost. It's that I honestly feel the country I love is going to suffer greatly as a result of this corrupt and stupid administration.

Posted by Observer at 07:40 AM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2005

Reality-Based World

Oh, that reality. Damn that reality. Try as Bushco might to create their own realities while scoffing at those of us who embrace objective reality, that darned objective reality just keeps slapping those assholes in the face. Even though we've been "turning the corner" for, what, the last 18 months or so. Even though the increasing attacks on our troops by insurgents show just how increasingly desperate their situation is getting. Even though we "turned over" the country to Iraqi control back in June.

Looks like the army is planning for two more years of More Of The Same:

The U.S. Army expects to keep its troop strength in Iraq at the current level of about 120,000 for at least two more years, according to the Army's top operations officer.

Oh, and that whole fiscal responsibility thing? Fuck it:

In a related development, Senate and House aides said yesterday that the White House will announce today plans to request an additional $80 billion to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would come on top of $25 billion already appropriated for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. White House budget spokesman Chad Kolton declined to comment

Gee, he declined to comment? What a shocker.

So let's see, that's *another* $80-something billion (and $1.5 billion of that is going to construct a new US embassy ... the same cost roughly for the replacement to the freakin' World Trade Center, notes Atrios). That brings the projected total to well over $500 per person so far for the Iraq war. Oh yeah, that's money well spent. You sure I can't take that back and get a nice new range for the kitchen?

Posted by Observer at 07:06 AM | Comments (7)

January 24, 2005

Tigana

"Tigana" by Guy Gavriel Kay is (in my opinion) his best work, and as a single stand-alone novel, it is a good way to try him out before getting involved in, say, "The Fionavar Tapestry" trilogy. Kay writes right down the mainstream of conventional fantasy: European-style monarchy/feudal warfare and intrigue sprinkled in with the supernatural here and there.

The main difference between someone like Kay and (to pick one at random that for some reason comes to mind) Terry Brooks is that Kay's characters have a lot of interesting depth and unpredictability, and Kay's plots feel a lot more original. Like Brooks, Kay has a connection to Tolkien, but Kay's at least is legitimate since he helped construct "The Silmarillion".

In this novel, an evil sorcerer/king named Brandin rules over a conquered nation that was once known as Tigana. A powerful spell prevents even the name of the old nation from being remembered by most of its inhabitants. In his old age, Brandin has mellowed a bit, though it turns out he had pretty good reason to try to wipe Tigana off the face of the Earth in the first place (at least to him; he's not just evil for the hell of it), and that opens the door for people close to him to set in motion a revolution to try to restore their old country. I tore through this one pretty quickly, and though I wouldn't put it in my top 10, it would definitely go in my top 10% (which works out to something like top 50).

Posted by Observer at 05:14 PM | Comments (2)

January 23, 2005

Teaching Awareness

Prior to the beginning of the semester, I learned that I was going to have a hearing-impaired student in my class. This person is not completely deaf. He can hear some sounds, but I'm not sure if it is the high or low end of the frequency spectrum. I was worried that I would have to have a sign language interpreter in the class, which seems like a big distraction, but it turns out this person is a speechreader, kind of like a lipreader who has sounds to help out.

Anyway, what it has done so far is to improve the way I teach. First of all, one of my biggest problems has always been that I tend to talk while I am facing the board. I've gotten better about it over time, but it is still a problem. I also sometimes talk in a hurry, and it makes it difficult for those in the back to string together what I'm saying. I'm afraid I get some students tuning out as a result.

With this person in the classroom, I find myself all the time making an effort to face the class when I am talking and to clearly enunciate when speaking. It's like an extra voice in my head reminding me all the time how to properly speak to the class, and I find the state of mind very useful.

I'm teaching all of my classes with this in mind now, and I hope the students find it is an improvement. This student's presence has also prompted me to update some of my (10 year old) videos that I show from time to time, and because I was spurred to look, I found a couple of new ones just released in the past year (closed-captioned and also with transcripts available) that I didn't know about that may turn out to be good. Time will tell.

In other news, we finished season 3 of "24" today. There were some real groaners this season (no matter what the show or the situation, I just cannot suspend disbelief when people are saying, "You've got to focus! Millions of innocent lives are at stake!" and that sort of thing), and lots of gratuitous violence and even torture. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I wonder sometimes if this show (which is very popular) is one of the big reasons people seem to be ok with torture in the "war on terror".

Got to figure out a new series to get from Netflix now. I'm thinking of getting a childhood favorite TV series of mine, "Starblazers", for the boys to watch. It may be a little too dated, but we'll see.

Posted by Observer at 06:03 PM | Comments (11)

January 22, 2005

Quiet, Please

As online time-wasting goes, you could do a whole lot worse than to spend a day exploring Scientific American's website. I have a digital subscription which lets me download the whole magazine for each month for the past 11 years in full-color, high-resolution PDF format (or individual articles, if I prefer). I justify the expense (to my department) because I am always scanning it for articles I can ask my students to read. I'm never disappointed.

The February 2005 issue is on newsstands, but it isn't up on their public website yet. It is up on the digital (password protected) website, though, and I found a neat article about how those new Bose noise-cancelling headphones work. For 300 bucks, you get not only high quality, comfortable headphones that are constructed to effectively block a lot of high-frequency noise, but they also have electronics inside to cancel low frequency noise. With a little external microphone in each earpiece, the device detects incoming low-frequency waves and a mini-speaker inside the headphone broadcasts the same sound, 180 degrees out of phase so as to cancel out a lot of the noise. As time goes on, presumably they will get better at this trick.

Meanwhile, time to add a new item to my wish list. Gimme summa them headphones, a nice new iPod, and maybe a Sirius satellite receiver base that broadcasts wirelessly to a little walkman I can carry around (so I can listen to Air America around the house without being stuck next to the computer), and I'll be all set. Just a thousand bucks or so. Not the highest priority (I'd probably get my eyes lasered first if I had that kind of money to spend on myself), but I like to have things to dream about.

Posted by Observer at 11:48 AM | Comments (6)

January 21, 2005

Another Day, Another Data Point

From Media Matters (and Atrios for the pointer) comes this description of "just another day" in your So-Called Liberal Media:

Media Matters for America inventoried all guests who appeared on FOX News, CNN, and MSNBC during the channels' January 20 inauguration coverage. Between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET, Republican and conservative guests and commentators outnumbered Democrats and progressives 19 to 7 on FOX *, 10 to 1 on CNN (not including a Republican-skewed panel featuring Ohio voters), and 13 to 2 on MSNBC. Moreover, the rare Democrat or progressive guest usually appeared opposite conservatives, whereas most Republican and conservative guests and commentators appeared solo or alongside fellow conservatives.

Follow the link to see the complete table from which the numbers come. Bob Somerby also follows media bias on a regular basis, and one of the funny things lately is that in order to find any kind of balance, any coherent version of the liberal point of view on most issues, you've got to look for the token liberal on Fox. The other networks don't even seem to bother much anymore.

Posted by Observer at 01:41 PM | Comments (0)

We [Heart] Torture

From Tom Toles:

Posted by Observer at 09:17 AM | Comments (0)

January 20, 2005

"So I Am Free"

"Agyar" is a pretty good introduction to Steven Brust (one of my top three favorite authors). It doesn't have all the names and places and complex backstory of the Jhereg series or any of the other Dragaera novels. It's just a simple little vampire story that takes place in a small college town, and it is definitely his best stand-alone book.

In this town, Jack Agyar lives in an old two-story house with a manual typewriter in the attic. He shares the house with an old ghost named Jim, and Agyar types out his own life story as a diary while it all happens. Saying any more than that would ruin a plot full of lots of neat surprises, especially a very powerful and emotional ending. This book is like a really great episode of "Buffy" without all the hipster teen angst crap. Anne Rice is the only other author that readily comes to mind who has written a first-person vampire story that I've read, and this is a clear cut above her work (which I liked).

Posted by Observer at 07:41 PM | Comments (0)

January 19, 2005

Refund Time

Work-sensitive enough that I decided to delete it. Sorry.

Posted by Observer at 06:04 PM | Comments (4)

Ethical Dilemma

Work-sensitive enough that I decided to delete it. Sorry.

Posted by Observer at 08:40 AM | Comments (4)

January 18, 2005

Numbers Game

Work-sensitive enough that I decided to delete it. Sorry.

Posted by Observer at 08:30 AM | Comments (10)

January 17, 2005

Centons and Yarons

We've watched the kickoff movie of Battlestar Galactica, and I thought it was pretty good. I was very impressed by the battle scenes and the look of everything. I didn't see the pilot (or don't remember it) of the original series, but this looks like a pretty good variant of the story. Lots of nods to the original series with some new twists thrown in. We've still got the first two hour episode of the series to watch.

Oh, and I've been meaning to do this for a while since the LOTR trivia, but here's something I'm a real expert at. Seinfeld trivia (answers in comments):

1) What are the first names of Kramer and his mother?

2) Who *really* spit on Kramer and Newman after the Mets game?

3) What was featured on the cover of Elaine's first J. Peterman catalog?

4) What are the names of Jerry's parents?

5) What is the name of the guy from Florida who gives Jerry his space pen?

6) What vegetable does Newman call a "vile weed"?

7) As Jerry predicts, who gets eliminated first from "the contest"?

Posted by Observer at 10:46 PM | Comments (7)

January 16, 2005

Killing Brain Cells

We're working our way through season 3 of "24" now with the help of Netflix. Is there an episode of "24" in which there is no graphic torture sequence? I wonder if this show hasn't done a fair bit to desensitize Americans to the idea of torture as it relates to terrorists (which the Bush administration, of course, thinks is equivalent to "random Iraqis picked up on the street").

Thanks to the DVR, we're now going to watch the movie and then the pilot of the new "Battlestar Galactica". I loved this series when I was a kid, and I didn't care that every space battle contained the same 15 seconds of footage in a randomly looped sequence. I guess I was 12 when "Galactica 1980" came out for a few episodes. I thought it was really cool at the time, even though it totally screwed up the backstory.

Oh, and I was also at Half-Price Books yesterday. Now that all of my books are out on the shelves, I've had a chance to do an inventory and see that I am missing parts of some series. I rebought the original Xanth trilogy books two (Castle Roogna) and three (The Source of Magic) and also books five and seven of Incarnations of Immortality, just for the sake of completeness. Then I was that the Apprentice Adept series that I *thought* was a trilogy actually went on for another four books(!!). So I bought the next four. I may not have what it takes to hold my breath and read them to see what happens, but at least if the kids like the trilogy, I'll have more for them to read.

I was also missing "Ender's Game" from my collection, of all things, so I bought another copy of that. The boys have never heard of it. I envy them getting to read it for the first time.

Posted by Observer at 07:17 PM | Comments (2)

January 15, 2005

Desert, Anyone?

Did you know that an estimated 5500 men and women have deserted from the military since the Iraq war started? Most of them go to Canada. That's a pretty big fraction of the total number we have over there, maybe 2-3%. It's about a tenth (so far) of the total number when fled to Canada to avoid Vietnam, but hey, the Iraq War is only two years old, and of course, we don't have a draft (yet). I wonder how they are all supporting themselves in Canada? They can't really legally work, and surely they aren't *all* being supported by their families sending money.

Posted by Observer at 07:48 AM | Comments (2)

January 14, 2005

A Pox on *ONE* House

Frank Rich has a good column today about the whole Armstrong Williams payola scandal:

Mr. Williams has repeatedly said in his damage-control press appearances that he was being paid the $240,000 only to promote No Child Left Behind. He also routinely says that he made the mistake of taking the payola because he wasn't part of the "media elite" and therefore didn't know "the rules and guidelines" of journalistic conflict-of-interest. His own public record tells us another story entirely. While on the administration payroll he was not only a cheerleader for No Child Left Behind but also for President Bush's Iraq policy and his performance in the presidential debates. And for a man who purports to have learned of media ethics only this month, Mr. Williams has spent an undue amount of time appearing as a media ethicist on both CNN and the cable news networks of NBC.

He took to CNN last October to give his own critique of the CBS News scandal, pointing out that the producer of the Bush-National Guard story, Mary Mapes, was guilty of a conflict of interest because she introduced her source, the anti-Bush partisan Bill Burkett, to a Kerry campaign operative, Joe Lockhart. In this Mr. Williams's judgment was correct, but grave as Ms. Mapes's infraction was, it isn't quite in the same league as receiving $240,000 from the United States Treasury to propagandize for the Bush campaign on camera. Mr. Williams also appeared with Alan Murray on CNBC to trash Kitty Kelley's book on the Bush family, on CNN to accuse the media of being Michael Moore's "p.r. machine" and on Tina Brown's CNBC talk show to lambaste Mr. Stewart for doing a "puff interview" with John Kerry on "The Daily Show" (which Mr. Williams, unsurprisingly, seems to think is a real, not a fake, news program).

But perhaps the most fascinating Williams TV appearance took place in December 2003, the same month that he was first contracted by the government to receive his payoffs. At a time when no one in television news could get an interview with Dick Cheney, Mr. Williams, of all "journalists," was rewarded with an extended sit-down with the vice president for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a nationwide owner of local stations affiliated with all the major networks. In that chat, Mr. Cheney criticized the press for its coverage of Halliburton and denounced "cheap shot journalism" in which "the press portray themselves as objective observers of the passing scene, when they obviously are not objective."

This is a scenario out of "The Manchurian Candidate." Here we find Mr. Cheney criticizing the press for a sin his own government was at that same moment signing up Mr. Williams to commit. The interview is broadcast by the same company that would later order its ABC affiliates to ban Ted Koppel's "Nightline" recitation of American casualties in Iraq and then propose showing an anti-Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor," under the rubric of "news" in prime time just before Election Day. (After fierce criticism, Sinclair retreated from that plan.) Thus the Williams interview with the vice president, implicitly presented as an example of the kind of "objective" news Mr. Cheney endorses, was in reality a completely subjective, bought-and-paid-for fake news event for a broadcast company that barely bothers to fake objectivity and both of whose chief executives were major contributors to the Bush-Cheney campaign. The Soviets couldn't have constructed a more ingenious or insidious plot to bamboozle the citizenry.

Thanks to The Poor Man, who also has good comments to make, for the link.

The Wall Street Journal, along with a lot of the ConservaBorg, are trying to make a big deal out of the fact that the Howard Dean campaign paid a couple of bloggers last year. Of course, there is zero credibility attached to this claim. After all, one of the two bloggers in question posted a prominent disclaimer at the top of his blog the whole time, and the other quit blogging while he was being paid.

The point of the story, as usual with the right-wing nutball set, is not to be right or even logical. It's just to try to get that whiff of "pox on both houses" into the mix so people will get even more cynical and figure whatever the latest scandal is doesn't matter because everybody does it. That's the whole point of the CBS news non-scandal, too.

Why do you think conservatives are so up in arms over the problems with that story but not with other CBS reports about the existence of WMD in Iraq or Judith Miller's NYT front-page war drumbeat about WMD? They're not interested in the objective truth about things, they will say whatever they need to say to make sure the Moron American crowd keeps giving Republicans at least 50.00001% of the (electoral) vote.

Posted by Observer at 01:53 PM | Comments (0)

Rewriting Textbooks

Today is the kind of day during which enough data will be received from the Huygens probe to rewrite entire textbook chapters with discoveries about Saturn's moon Titan, the only moon in the solar system with a significant atmosphere. Follow the link for updates.

Posted by Observer at 01:21 PM | Comments (3)

January 13, 2005

Not Just a River in Egypt

As I linked yesterday, it looks like the search for WMD's in Iraq is finally over. You can imagine this presents a fresh challenge for the ConservaBorg, who are never, ever wrong. Not to worry, though, the warbloggers have come up with all kinds of justifications after the fact to prove that they were right all along.

First, as the president's own spokesman is arguing, Spetember 11th changed everything. Apparently, September 11th made it ok to invade any country we want under whatever rationale we feel like coming up with. The fact that this administration can continue to link the Iraq War with September 11th is a pretty sad commentary on the Moron Americans who saw fit to put these guys back into office. Why bother trying anything new if they're still buying all your stale old shit?

Another argument is that, well, everyone else thought Iraq had WMD's. After all, lots of prominent Democrats also insisted Iraq had WMD's, and that's been true since even before Clinton was president. There are so many ways this argument is bogus. For starters...

None of those entities went to war with Iraq, and Bush did . Also, none of them stood in front of the world and pointed to maps declaring depots of WMD and WMD-related materials that were about as accurate as a randomly generated SimCity map. [...]

The issue with "everyone believed it" is that Bush acted of his own accord. Not only that, but he had additional information past the cited assessments of the Clinton/Bush I/Reagan governments, et. al. The UN and the IAEA were there, telling him it was increasingly looking like Iraq was either significantly less armed, or unarmed with WMD, even as we were gearing up for war. In fact, he later flat-out lied and declared that Iraq wouldn't let in the inspectors that he wasn't listening to, when in fact, he had requested them withdrawn so that the bombing campaign could begin.

Bush, committing both the "Coalition" (inasmuch as it ever existed outside of the U.S. and Britain) and Iraq to war, had a higher burden of proof than any of those other nations, and a duty to further investigate the claim before acting on it. He investigated it. All the new information he received prior to the invasion told him he was wrong. And he still chose to go in, in part based off of old and less informed assessments, in fact utilizing them because they told him what he wanted to hear. There is no blaming Canada or Clinton for this. There's also no blaming them for the specific claims made (i.e., any of the numerous "smoking gun" comments) that none of those other entities were making in any relevant time period. Unless, somehow, intelligence assessments from 1988 represent the zenith of America's knowledge about the world.

(And the three presidents claim is disingenuous to the extreme, considering that twelve years passed between the last time Saddam had WMD and the invasion. Nine presidents before Clinton believed that the Soviet Union existed and exerted direct political control over several Eastern European countries. Clinton didn't, in part because the Soviet Union no longer existed . If he'd treated Russia like the USSR because other countries and presidents asserted its existence years ago, he would have been widely ridiculed as an idiot. The same rationale, when applied here, is somehow an excuse for Bush, for no rational reason whatsoever.) [...]

If your idea of responsibility is saying that Bush is a cipher who blindly trusts whatever Bill Clinton said (an accusation of stupidity even most liberals won't make), then [the warblogger] argument makes sense. If, however, you believe that when a leader goes to war, it's ultimately because they want to go to war for the reasons they state, then yes, Bush is uniquely responsible for being seriously wrong.

Lots of good comments in that Pandagon entry I pointed to, as well. Including this:

There's a big difference between:
1) believing (as most intelligence services did) that Saddam may have had a few residual, still dangerous unconventional chemical weapons and that continuing inspections were needed to find out if this were so and neutralize any remaining capability Saddam may have had,

and 2) believing that Saddam had a nuclear weapons program so advanced that he was on the brink of launching a massive attack on the United Staes, requiring an immediate, full scale invasion and occupation of the country.

Also, The Poor Man has a very nice table summarizing the results of Rathergate vs WMDgate. Then there is this from Tom Toles:



Posted by Observer at 09:03 AM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2005

LOTR Trivia

Just for fun. I'll put answers in comments. Difficulty varies, these aren't in any particular order.

1) What is the Elvish word for "friend" and when is it spoken in the story?

2) Who is the son of Ecthelion?

3) What's the name of the river that flows between the Argonath monuments?

4) What is the name of the artifact Galadriel gives to Frodo?

5) What is the name of the sword that cut the ring from Sauron's hand?

Posted by Observer at 04:40 PM | Comments (9)

Comedy Writes Itself

Trust The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert for the proper perspective on the whole CBS/Dan Rather fiasco:

So hasty was CBS news to get the story they wanted that they took obviously flawed intelligence from highly questionable sources and rushed to present it to the American people as reality. Then, even in the face of overwhelming countervailing evidence, CBS refused to back down. They unilaterally invaded our airwaves based on false pretenses. That's perhaps why, tonight, CBS finds itself isolated, without allies, its reputation in tatters.

I cannot think of another example of this having happened.

Me neither.

Posted by Observer at 03:42 PM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2005

:g/Gandalf/Allanon

I'm reading all about stupid conservatives who still think "The Bell Curve" was a model of social science, about how CBS fires people for "Rather-gate" but all the other shit the media makes up about liberals continues to go unpunished and about how the administration is floating the "death squads" trial balloon in their ongoing effort to top the most recent atrocity. But right now, all the bad news is giving me tired-head, so go read my sidebar links. Meanwhile, I'm going to do another book review.

Terry Brooks has written about a dozen "Shannara" book to date, but all I've read of them is the initial trilogy (though each is pretty much a stand-alone) that is now available as an omnibus, which includes "The Sword of Shannara", "The Elfstones of Shannara" and "Wishsong of Shannara". The classic review of "Sword" is "Lord of the Rings with global substitution", and that's a pretty fair summary. I won't bore with all of the parallels, but the basic idea may sound familiar: a powerful ancient artifact falls into the hands of an out-of-his-depth young person who is chased from his home by dark creatures who hunger for the power of the artifact, which belongs to an undead wizard and so a wizard guides the person and his close friends on a quest to destroy it. Parallels with Tolkien are far more common than non-LOTR elements. I understand that pretty much all fantasy is derivative, even Tolkien, but really, this is probably too much for a real Tolkien fan.

With that said, "Sword" is written for a younger audience and moves at a much faster pace, so for a teenager, it is a very good introduction to quest fantasy. I actually liked "Elfstones" better, even though again, it is derivative (a horde of nasties attack a city with spiral-structured defenses, a mystical tree near the center, while a pair of overmatched heroes complete a magical quest elsewhere when the enemy is otherwise occupied). It is fast-paced and different enough that you don't necessarily know all the plot twists. "Wishsong" was very forgettable and, interestingly, the most original of the three. I would stop after the second one if I had to do it all over again.

There are lots of Brooks fans out there, so maybe he got better as the series went on, but I wasn't willing to risk it. I'll admit that it is possible I read "Wishsong" when I was too young because it is pitched to an older crowd than the first two books.

Posted by Observer at 07:18 AM | Comments (9)

January 10, 2005

Blown Calls

I was watching an English Premier League match last week, and it brought to mind a Piers Anthony book, of all things.

For those of you who didn't have your life force totally drained by that first sentence, I'll explain. My adopted favorite team, Tottenham Hotspur, was visiting Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United. Now I've adopted Tottenham because I loved how they kept fighting back in one of the most amazing soccer games I've witnessed, a 5-4 loss to Arsenal around the beginning of December. The announcer kept saying, "And *another* goal for Tot'nam!". So I went around the house saying "Tot'nam!" for a while.

Anyway, since that time, Tottenham has been on a roll, moving up from the bottom half of the table by winning 7 of 8 matches, mostly against subpar teams. Last week, they took on 5th place Everton and dominated, so I figure they are for real and maybe have a chance to place in the top four, thus go on to the European Champions' League. Visiting Man U was a huge test. They've lost there each year (except for one draw) for 15 consecutive years. And they were up against it this time, too, because Man U has been just as hot as the Spurs over the past couple of months.

Manchester outshot Tottenham for the whole game and seemed constantly on the attack, but Tottenham kept trying an opportunistic game, pitching the ball way forward and hoping their meager one or two forwards could weave their way through four or five stout Manchester defenders. You could see how frustrated the poor forwards were, being so outmanned, but the Tottenham defense couldn't spare a player. Anyway, with about ten minutes to go, it looked like Tottenham would escape with a 0-0 draw, which would be a minor miracle.

The Man U keeper, who had been trash-talking earlier in the game, came really far out of goal to help press the attack, but there was a quick turnover. While the keeper was running back, a Tottenham player lobbed a shot from midfield. The keeper got back to his line just in time to catch it, but he muffed it, and the ball bounced back into the goal. It was unreal. What was more unreal was that the goalie jumped back into the net and slapped the ball out after it had already bounced a foot or two behind the goal line. I could see it in real time, and it was an obvious goal, but the ref and the linesman didn't see it, and play continued.

As you might imagine, Tottenham was outraged, and the players harassed the refs at every opportunity even after the match was over. The ref kind of gave one back to Tottenham, though, by awarding a free kick outside the penalty box instead of a penalty kick for a clear trip that happened inside the box. But then the trip probably wouldn't have happened if the Tottenham side hadn't been playing frustrated and on tilt because of the injustice at the other end. Since then, the call has gone up (I gather this happens every couple of months or so just like other sports here) for instant replay, at least regarding goals, and the powers that be will officially consider it, blah blah blah.

So then I remembered a Piers Anthony series that was good enough to stick in my memory since I was a teenager, and that is the trilogy known as "The Apprentice Adept". The three novels are called "Split Infinity", "Blue Adept" and "Juxtaposition". The setting is two parallel worlds, one called Proton and the other Phaze. On Proton, a futuristic, technological society, there is a hierarchy that allows you to become part of the aristocracy if you win at the Games.

The Game is a neat little device. You find a willing opponent, and you each use a computerized grid to narrow down your choice of games, trying to pick to your strength or your opponent's weakness, until the computer finally picks. Sometimes the game is as simple as a slot machine pull. Sometimes it is chess. Sometimes it involves riddles, or ping pong. In one case, the protagonist (Stile) has to play quarterback for a football team full of robots. He is about to lose, but the computerized referee bungles a perfectly easy call, which gives Stile the win.

Stile thinks the game is somehow fixed, but then he discovers that in order to properly simulate real football, the computer is programmed to screw up at least one major call every game, and that happened to be the one. It's a neat little story to read and it makes you think of instant replay in a whole new way. Me, I'm all for instant replay, as long as any decision can cause no more than about a 60 second delay in the game and can end up being the right decision at least 75% of the time (NFL doesn't meet either standard). I could live without it, because it is inescapable that luck and injustice is a part of the game, and after a long time of being frustrated by that, I've come to accept it (I wish I could accept how umpires call balls and strikes in baseball).

Anyway, as far as the trilogy goes, Stile is introduced to the parallel fantasy/magic world and eventually discovers he is someone of import there. That's because his counterpart has been murdered and now it is assumed Stile will take his place, but someone is also trying to kill Stile in his original world... So it gets complicated because Stile and his stalker keep hopping back and forth between worlds. It's a combination of science fiction and fantasy then, and pretty good for a teenage reader. I mean, any book with computer games, magic, sports and oh-so-willing lovely female robots (and people) is going to be geared toward teenage boys, like most Anthony stuff. As an example of the genre, though, this series stuck with me more than just about any other simply because of all the neat ideas.

And Tottenham plays top-ranked Chelsea this weekend. Should be a good one.

Posted by Observer at 07:12 AM | Comments (5)

January 09, 2005

Bear Time

Today I'll talk about Greg Bear's "Eon". This is one of his first major science fiction epics, and it isn't his best. The premise assumes the Cold War continued until around the year 2000, with nuclear war imminent, when a strange asteroid settles into Earth orbit. Explorers discover that it is from humanity's future. Inside are digitized libraries with not only lots of knowledge but also uploaded human personalities, almost like digital ghosts.

More important is The Way, an inexplicable beam that acts like a ray. Its endpoint is a city inside the asteroid called Thistledown. Defying normal laws of Physics, it goes on forever in one direction, disregarding the physical boundary of the asteroid. Trying to approach it in a certain way pushes you down axis, so it is like a cosmic conveyer belt that can carry you to different worlds within this tunnel. Some part of humanity has fled down the axis, and it isn't clear whether they or someone else sent the asteroid back, nor is it clear how or why.

So plenty of mystery and discovery, some fresh speculative ideas and some interesting ethical issues, just like any good science fiction novel. The characters and the plot were a bit stale and uninteresting, just vehicles for Bear's amazing imagination. It's one of those books that is very long and hard to follow because no part of the plot just GRABS you and makes you want to find out what's next. There is a sequel, "Eternity", that I have read, but my memory of that is very dim and only that it wasn't really good.

I'd compare "Eon" to "Dune" in terms of a novel setting up a world, and then "Eternity" would be like "Dune Messiah" or "Children of Dune", set in the same world with some of the same characters, but nowhere near as motivating. Lots of philosophical wandering, and as the characters evolve, it is sometimes difficult to maintain interest. Just too plodding. You can tell a lot of thought goes into it, but it's like a laser. Unless you are right on the axis and it is pointing at you, you just don't see much light even though it may be powerful.

I learned when I looked up more information on this book that there is now a prequel called "Legacy". Haven't read it, but what little I see around the web is not promising.

Posted by Observer at 08:32 AM | Comments (0)

January 08, 2005

The Hand of Rawn

I spent a few hours this week putting together new bookshelves that I got for Christmas, so I was finally able to pull all of my books out of storage in one of Sarah's closets. They're all out on the shelves now. With the three six-shelf bookshelves plus one big three-shelfer and the big built-in three-shelfer in the living room, I've got about 60 feet of books collected that I've read and another 10 feet of books that I haven't read (many leftover from a 1994 trip to Powell's in Portland, Oregon, where I spent about 200 bucks). All this digging through my books inspired me to start reviewing some more, so I'll start by finishing up the list of fantasy series the kids might like to read.

Melanie Rawn has written two oversized trilogies that I've read. The first is "Dragon Prince", a romantic fantasy. It's a pretty typical fantasy world, a mix of dragons, magic (two opposing kinds, star and sun, but the sun is actually ... oh nevermind) and various elements of medieval Europe, including a form of feudalism and monarchy. The main male character is Rohan, and he wants to evolve the world into a less barbaric and more civilized place, and he falls in love with Sioned, who is way beneath his station, so there is lots of opposition from other nobles to all aspects of his life. The whole trilogy involves him overcoming those obstacles and Making the World a Better Place. I guess it is pitched more to female readers, but I thought it was fine.

In the second trilogy, "Dragon Star", it all goes to hell as Rohan's son Pol has to deal with an enormous invasion that pretty much overruns the world except for a few isolated strongholds, sort of like in Hambly's "Darwath" series, only without the real-world crossover element. This second series is a bit weaker than the first. Really, the first book of the first trilogy is the best of the six, with the most original ideas and interesting plot (especially if you like romantic novels, which I don't). The rest of the first trilogy is okay only because you want to find out what happens to all of the characters. The second trilogy I could do without, as it was a bit of a slog.

Each of the six books is in the neighborhood of 600 pages, and these are not your oversized-type Harry Potter pages which you can zip through in the half the time. So reading the whole set is an ambitious project (it is about 10 inches worth of books in paperback, equivalent to all 11 books of Glen Cook's "Black Company" series). I imagine the only reason I got through it was because I was a grad student at the time and had a hell of a lot more time to read.

Posted by Observer at 11:20 AM | Comments (0)

January 07, 2005

Big Picture

Matt Yglesias has a nice collection of quotes talking about how the latest attacks on American troops are a sign of just how desperate the insurgents are getting in Iraq. There are similar quotes from September 2003, January 2004, March 2004 and January 2005. Unqualified Offerings has this to say about our progress in Iraq fighting off the insurgents (can I call them that, or do I have to call them terrorists?)

Here's a brief history of estimates of the size of the insurgency:

Summer 2003 - There's no insurgency! Just some bandits.
Winter 2004 - A few hundred to a couple thousand dead=enders.
Summer 2004 - As many as 5,000.
Fall 2004 - Up to 20,000.
Winter 2005 - About 40,000 dedicated, up to 160,000 kibitzers.
Summer 2005 - ?

All this time we've been assured that our kill ratios are splendid, that the insurgents lose every single encounter and so on. Meanwhile the top US estimate (the 20,000) quadrupled this year. Our intelligence has either sucked all along and the insurgency has always been much bigger than the Pentagon and NRO have imagined, or the insurgency has mushroomed despite all the Good News You Never Hear About and our unbroken string of military successes (Samarra, Fallujah, Najaf, Samarra, Najaf, Fallujah, Samarra . . . ).

Either way, it's hard to figure out how loudly I'd have to cheer to make the matter go away.

The Poor Man adds some great comments, too, not only about Iraq but about the general attitude of the Fighting 101st Keyboarders who are so intent on supporting the Jackasses in Charge:

The way that normal, non-hallucinating people of any political persuasion can help the soldiers in the field, the people of Iraq, and, not least of all, themselves, is to appreciate the true situation as best they can, and to demand accountability from our political leaders when the situation is not handled effectively. The true situation is that there is a large and popular insurgency in Iraq, made up of disparate interests, but all drawing their strength from the long-standing popular discontent with the American and coalition occupation, a discontent based on a very understandable dislike of foreign armies, and fueled by the thousands of Iraqis we have killed, intentionally or not, to say nothing of Abu Ghraib - here, 6 months later, almost completely forgotten. This is the reality that was apparent to journalists well outside the "Sunni triangle" last March, as well as to the Marines who first "liberated" Baghdad. True, many soldiers in Iraq have been in places where people were nice and glad to have them, which is great, but misses the main point. Kennedy was shot on a sunny day, but most newspapers didnít lead with the nice weather.

Appreciate this. Understand that the people killing us in Iraq aren't motivated by Gore Vidal or inspired by Susan Sontag or organized by Michael Moore or in cahoots in any way with any of the right's celebrity piŮatas - not literally, not metaphorically, not if you look at it in a certain way, not to any infinitesimal degree, not in any sense, not in any way at all. They do not lead a clandestine international conspiracy of Evil which has corrupted everything in every foreign country plus everything in America not owned by loyal Bush Republican apparatchiks; nor are they members of such a conspiracy; nor does a conspiracy remotely matching that description exist. To think otherwise is, literally and to a very great degree, insanity. It is insane .

And if you really want to help the American war effort, you can join the fucking armed forces and go to Iraq like thousands of others have, and then you can do the best job you can to show them that Americans care about them and want, above all else, for all of our futures to be better and more peaceful than the past, and get paid shit. You will then be my personal hero, really, and I hope you don't get killed or maimed or see or do something that makes you hate everything for the rest of your life, which is a very real possibility.

If you, like me, are too much of a coward to risk your life and health on a mission like that, then you can donate to charities which help soldiers (although it is worth looking into where and what kind of help is needed Ė some places donít need it as much as others ). But the easiest thing you can do is influence the politicians who create the policies Ė and in some cases the military strategies - which are being carried out in Iraq, but to do this in a useful way you first have to make some contact with reality. Reality is that the situation in Iraq is horrible, the outlook for any lasting peace is grim, and that this has nothing to do with a nebulous, malignant, all-powerful ďLeftĒ, and everything to do with the people in power who make bad and stupid policies. You can pull your head out of your ass, stop dreaming up stupid conspiracy theories about how everyone around the world you donít like is working together to destroy Freedom, and tell them that they need to do a better job. And if they wonít do a better job, the solution is not to get upset at people who arenít waving their pom-poms or denouncing Saddam single-mindedly enough for you, it is to fire the fuck-ups so we can maybe have some chance at salvaging something from this fiasco.

ÖAnd, before you ask: no, I have no clue about how we can improve things in Iraq. I donít have a single idea for how we can un-shit the bed, and I donít hold out much hope that this whole bed-shitting episode is ever going to be brought to a lemony-fresh conclusion. I do, however, know who shit the bed, and have some sense of how frequently he shits there. Letís stop shitting for a start.

That's the bitter pill that conservatives are going to have to swallow in order to rejoin the reality-based world. Iraq is a disastrous quagmire, and they are the ones who got us into it. Unlike the above quote, I do have some idea about how we should proceed, and I've talked about it before.

First, we need to make whatever concessions are necessary, right now, in order to internationalize the reconstruction of Iraq. For starters, we can let Iraqis do it themselves rather than forcing Halliburton contractors down their throats. And we can foot the bill for it (cheaper that way, too). Second, pay through the nose to get other nations to commit troops, and give them authority in their own areas so Iraqis won't see them as U.S. stooges. That will also likely be cheaper in the long run. Third, stop the torture. Stop using psychological warfare on civilians, because we are turning more of them into terrorists than we are capturing terrorists.

Over here, we must commit serious resources to preventing future terrorist attacks. Enough with the stupid Star Wars missile defense. Talk about a September 10th mentality! Use that money to tighten up port security. Stop with the partisan gutting of the CIA. Value competency above loyalty at every level of government so we can stop losing good people and recruit more good people, because we need all kinds of intelligence manpower. Stop with the stupid tax cuts for the rich. It's irresponsible to cut taxes during a war. People need to be asked to sacrifice. Use the Republican Noise Machine to convince them they should, so maybe it can do something good for a change.

There's more, but I mean, isn't this all pretty obvious? Why aren't we doing it?

Posted by Observer at 07:29 AM | Comments (0)

January 06, 2005

Tortured Logic

As I said before the election, I still believe that, in the world's eyes, our election of Bush tells the world that we support torture. Oh sure, we can rationalize it in other ways. There are so many problems with Bush, you could justify starting in many different places than torture, but the thing is, one issue most people can agree upon is the idea of basic human rights. And by electing Bush, we have made it clear that we don't stand for that anymore.

So in that light, Alberto Gonzales, the brilliant mind who tried to gin up a fig leaf legal argument to the effect of, "Hey, torture is ok, because we are better than everyone else, and after all, everyone we torture is a terrorist," is the absolutely perfect choice for promotion. Here in the reality-based world, though, I suppose we liberals must continue to fight the good fight and at least try to get America back on the right track. It's depressing, frustrating and probably totally hopeless, but if we love what America stands for, we have to make ourselves heard.

So James Wolcott points to this excellent summary by Jesse Kornbluth of why Alberto Gonzales should be ridden out of town on a rail.

Once again, we find an entire nation held hostage to the psychological profile of a few powerful men. Bush's post-alcoholic need for certainty, his competitiveness with his father, his curious passion for depersonalizing and humiliating his adversaries and his spectacular lack of interest in anything but ideological purity now find a partner in the kid from Houston whose intelligence is only exceeded by his ambition.

The reason Gonzales should be rejected is that--in pursuit of an All-American career--he has trashed American ideals and American law. Specifically, because on January 25, 2002, he advised the President that the war on terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners." Later that year, Gonzales ordered up a legal opinion from Jay Bybee, then the assistant attorney general, who conveniently agreed that the president could suspend the Geneva Conventions at will--and that, on occasion, torture "may be justified."

(Just last week, the Justice Department changed its mind and rejected the definition of torture that has led to the revelations of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib--and the endangerment of any American soldier who has the misfortune of being captured by an enemy who decides to operate by "American rules." Gee, what took them so long? Did they finally read the law? Or did they discover, as every army that tries torture invariably does, that it produces so little useful information it's really a waste of time?) [...]

It is typical of this President to judge his staff by a single criterion: loyalty. It's a low, deadly way of operating a government, and it has always led to ruin. We say--because we always say this, because what else can we say?--"We'll survive this." But each day our leaders take us lower and lower, until we find ourselves surrounded by thugs and torturers.

The Rude Pundit adds his two cents to these thoughts:

The Rude Pundit has been on a weeklong visit to the deepest, darkest nether regions of Red State America. When he first arrived, he was greeted by car after car on the highway near the airport still sporting "George Bush for President" bumper stickers. The Rude Pundit is a listener, an eavesdropper. In plate lunch joints and bars, he heard the same things over and over: about how great it was that the President was tough enough to fight the terrorists in Iraq. Hell, the fuckin' newspaper here, in an end of 2004 story on the soldiers from this region, directly stated that the war in Iraq was about avenging 9/11. How do you counter that kind of localized propaganda?

But, you know, there's something interesting that happens whenever you engage anyone who believes these things in a conversation: they get really, really defensive about Bush. And not in a coherent way. And not even in the knee-jerk-"I-support-my-President" kind of way. No, it's more of an "I don't wanna talk about it - shutupshutupshutup" kind of way, with ears covered and eyes clenched shut. In other words, they know. They know it's all been a huge failure. But they don't wanna know. And it's just easier to pretend that everything's fantabulous than face that horror, that abyss, of mistrust, of awareness of one's own complicity in the voting booth.

Torture isn't a partisan issue. It is just common sense that America doesn't do that kind of thing. We're better than that. The *ONLY* reason this is seen as a partisan issue is because Bush is responsible for it, and the current Republican message is that Bush = Republican = American, so if you are anti-Bush, it is tantamount to treason, disloyalty, anti-Americanism. At the very least, it is partisan. Can anyone name any issue on which Bush has been (rightly or wrongly) criticized during the last four years in which the response hasn't been an accusation of partisanship or worse?

That's at the root of "liberal media" complaints. Any time the media reports any fact that happens to paint the administration in a bad light, the immediate explanation is media bias (and, sure, sometimes it's true and not just liberal bias). No attention is paid to the idea that the media's job is to report facts. If you all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you have is a Limbaugh, every problem looks like a liberal.

Remember when Bill Clinton was president? Hell, when Bush Sr was president? Or Reagan? Or Carter? Back then, it was possible to dissent without being accused of partisanship. After 1994, it was rare because most dissent was partisan by definition (e.g. Newt's plan to dismiss any Clinton health-care plan sight unseen because he had to deny Democrats any victory), but it was still possible.

Posted by Observer at 08:02 AM | Comments (11)

January 05, 2005

3rd Anniversary

Today is the third anniversary for myself and my wonderful wife, Michelle. This post will probably sound a lot like last year's, but heck, my feelings haven't changed, so why shouldn't it? Three years has passed like the blink of an eye, and I can honestly say that has never happened before.

Michelle and I found each other, and life has been fulfilling and very happy ever since. I love her so much that love seems like too small of a word. She's an integral part of my life and my happiness. She has helped give my life a meaning it never had before and unlocked things inside me I hoped were there.

Too often in the past, I have made the mistake of being too passive and too content to be content, if that makes any sense. Michelle makes it easy for me to share my feelings with her, and I always will. I can't wait to see what the next year holds and the years after that.

Happy anniversary to my true love and my true best friend.

Posted by Observer at 08:05 PM | Comments (1)

January 04, 2005

Today's Tomorrow

Here's the latest brilliant comic from Tom Tomorrow courtesy of Working for Change, which also always hosts the latest columns from Molly Ivins and others.

Posted by Observer at 03:02 PM | Comments (0)

Promise Keeper

Ok, so I made good on my resolution and skipped a day. No guarantees from here on out. :)

As the conservative magazine "National Review" celebrates its 50th anniversary of being wrong most of the time, Atrios takes time out to review one of his favorite old editorials of theirs, one they aren't likely to dust off and remind everyone about:

The central question that emerges . . . is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes Ė the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.

National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. . . . It is more important for the community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.

From 1957 that is. I pray that America is sufficiently advanced 50 years from now to be able to look back on all of the Review's current pro-Bush, pro-war bullshit with equal derision.

Posted by Observer at 02:02 PM | Comments (3)

January 02, 2005

Not Ready

I guess I'm not ready to fulfill my resolution yet, so I'll get a post in tonight just under the wire. We've been running a lot of errands these past few days and deconstructing Christmas stuff, so it has been very busy. I got a nice new office chair today (sat on probably 30 chairs and ended up picking the one I sat in first) and upgraded Sarah's chair in her room by handing down my old one to her. She sits in that chair all the time to watch videos on her new TV. She's currently plowing through the BBC versions of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" which are horribly unwatchable so I'm glad she's not out in the living room with them.

I also found the Amadeus soundtrack at the library today. I owned that once long ago but lost it, and that was really what introduced me to classical music. I also own a 12-disc collection of Mozart symphonies, and every once in a while, I'll come across one of the pieces that is also in Amadeus. When it ends, I'll expect some other unrelated piece to start because that's the ordering on the soundtrack, but instead it is the next movement or what have you. It's weird and doesn't sound right even though it *is* right. Next time, I'm going to look for some more Chopin piano concertos, because the few of those on Amadeus I really like more than anything else.

It's not that I listen to classical music a lot. About the only time I play it is when I'm trying to concentrate on something else and need the "white noise" to drown out other distractions, but some classical music rises above that level for me and is really great. Anyway, the library is great because I can just check out those CD's, dump 'em into iTunes, and I own 'em forever.

In another 10 years, if memory keeps doubling like it tends to do, it won't just be music but fully digitized DVD versions of movies that can be stored on external drives. What else is going to happen as bit-storage capacity continues to grow exponentially?

Posted by Observer at 11:12 PM | Comments (20)

January 01, 2005

Poker Results

I need more chips. We played no limit, me and the three oldest kids. Sarah needed a lot of help learning the game, and the boys needed help keeping their big traps shut, but we had fun. Everyone started with five dollars in cash worth of Christmas money and had 75 cent buy ins and we could rebuy from other players if we got down below 30 cents worth of chips (either 25 or 50 more cents worth). Chips were worth 1-2-5 cents.

I need about 2-5x as many chips to make it fun, though. It sucks to buy in and only have essentially three stacks of ten chips in front of you. I guess that'll be a long-term goal, to build up my collection of 14g chips and get a carrying case or two to hold them all. My brother always plays with pretty cheap clay 11g chips (and, though I think this is highly unstable and less fun, they make every chip worth 50 cents, regardless of color), and he thought my chips rocked. They do feel a lot better to me.

I played nice and won two bucks. The three kids were calling everything, and since Cody kept getting hands, he ended up winning three bucks. Sarah was the big loser because she just couldn't help but call even when she had nothing because she wanted to keep playing until she saw that very last card turned over. On the bright side, Sarah did get the first royal flush we've ever seen in our house game.

We won't play for real money again unless it is a special occasion (maybe only on New Year's) because I can't help but win if I play for real against two calling stations and a card chaser.

Posted by Observer at 12:39 PM | Comments (0)

Resolution

My New Year's resolution is to finally skip a day of blogging at some point, just to prove that I am not a complete homebody. I've posted an entry every day since the blog began in February 2003, even during the time we went to Sea World, without backdating or anything. It's really unhealthy, to be honest.

Posted by Observer at 12:07 AM | Comments (5)