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July 27, 2005

Everybody Else Uses Checking

Every day on my morning commute, as I pass by an sign reading "Only Jesus Saves" posted on a telephone pole in front of a bank, I think "Well, at least someone will have money for retirement..."

July 26, 2005

Books: Blindness

After I raved about House of Leaves, a reader suggested I check out Blindness by Jose Saramago, describing it as "another freak-out book." I wasn't really in the mood for another freak-out book, honestly, but I found Blindness at the library and brought it home with the intention of putting it on the bottom of my "to read" pile. But then -- whoops! -- I read the first chapter, and all of my queued up books were forgotten.

Blindness tells the tale of a great epidemic that sweeps through a small town (and perhaps the world, though the scope of the book is provincial), leaving its victims sightless but otherwise unaffected. The first few chapter trace the web of contagion as the disease is transmitted from one person to the next; then, about a third of the way through, the focus shifts to a small group of the infected who are struggling to survive while quarantined in an abandoned mental institution along with scores of similarly afflicted inmates.

The book was originally written in Portuguese, and translated into English. And I have a confession to make: I have an irrational aversion to translated novels. No matter how accomplished the "About The Authors" blurb claims the translator is, I always feel that I am missing out, that something must have surely been lost in the shuffle. Why can't these author just learn to speak English as second language more fluently than most of us speak it as a first? You know, like Nabokov did. That said, the language in Blindness is rather stark and straightforward, almost Hemmingwayian, so this aspect of it didn't bother me as much as it otherwise would.

What I did find somewhat irksome -- until I grew accustomed to it, at least -- was Saramago indifference to punctuation and grammatical rules. Entire conversations in Blindness are often contained in a single sentence, written in a "He said this and then she said that and then what do you mean?, he replied" manner that eschews quotation marks or any other devices that would aid the reader in determining who said what. Some have pointed out that this style mirrors the plight of the protagonists -- that we, the reader, must suffer like the sightless, unable to determine where those voices are coming from in the absence of any visual cues.

Much of the novel plays out like a modern-day adaptation of Lord of the Flies, when men, severed from their old lives (here by the loss of a sense, rather than geographically) revert to their bestial natures. Indeed, the middle third of the book is mighty grim, so much so that, at one point, I almost abandoned it, wondering why I was voluntarily subjecting myself to something so depressing. Fortunately, the story already had its hooks in me, leaving me no choice to persevere.

I did not find Blindness to be a "freak-out book" -- not on par House of Leaves, at any rate. For one thing, I was unable to suspend my disbelief enough to completely buy into the premise. But, to be fair, Saramago doesn't try to make the narrative believable, choosing instead to write the story more as an allegory. (None of the characters have names, for instance.) Consequentially, I felt a few steps removed from the action. And while it bummed me out at times, freaked out I was not. Still, an excellent and gripping read, and one I would recommend.

July 25, 2005

The Soft Bigotry Of Low Expectations

I think it's ridiculous that "attempted murder" carries a lesser penalty than "murder." We should be encouraging people to excel in their professions, not rewarding them for failure.

July 22, 2005

The Bad Review Revue

Rebound: "Starts off bad, then tapers off." -- Kyle Smith, NEW YORK POST

Herbie: Fully Loaded: "To damn it as soporific crap, as lazy profiteering, as yet another needless and cynical remake in a season populated by such con artists, would be as pointless as the movie itself." -- Robert Wilonsky, DALLAS OBSERVER

The Fantasic Four: "Directing seems an unduly elegant term for what the Hollywood hack du jour does here." -- Scott Foundas, LA WEEKLY

Mindhunters: "So stupid it makes xXx: State of the Union look like it was written by Nietzsche." -- Stephen Hunter, WASHINGTON POST

Kicking & Screaming: "Not only not funny, it's unfunny. It kills humor. Sit in a room by yourself, look at a blank screen for 90 minutes, and you'll have more of a chance of laughing at your own thoughts than you will at this movie." -- Mick LaSalle, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

The Honeymooners: "It's not as bad as the average Hollywood movie. It's stupendously worse." -- Wesley Morris, BOSTON GLOBE

July 21, 2005

Research Day: Butt Muscles, Tractor Beams, And STUFF IN ALL-CAPS

Is your ass one muscle or two? A female coworker of mine recently signed up for a course in bellydancing. Here's the conversation we had after her first class:

Me: Is it fun?

Her: No, I hate it. It's way too hard. You have to, like, move the left side off your butt up and the right side down at the same time. I don't even think that's possible, since your butt is just one muscle.

M: Is it? I always kind of though it was two.

H: It's called the "gluteus maximus," so I think it's just one.

M: Well, even so, it can't be impossible to do that. I mean, your tongue is a single muscle, and you can move different parts of it in different direction.

H: No you can't.

M: Sure you can. If you stick out your tongue you can move the tip of it up and down without moving the back of it.

H: Oh, I see what you're saying. Like, the front of your tongue is the right side of my butt and the back part of your tongue is the left side of my butt?


M: I'm sorry, but as a married man I can no longer participate in this conversation.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time searching the Internet for an answer to this question. My operating assumption was that the human body only contains one gluteus maximus muscle, but I kept coming across illustrations such as the one found here which make it look like there is one gluteus maximus per leg.

Finally I dusted off my old MeFi account and Asked Metafilter. A few minutes after I posted ther query, ikkyu2 weighed in with this: "Two. Definitely, incontrovertibly two, innervated each by the inferior gluteal nerve (right and left)" and cited this page as evidence. Based on the fact that his Mefi profile page lists his occupation as "neurologist," and that he knows how to use words like "innervated," I'm going to believe him.

Update: Although I didn't mention bellydancing in my Ask Metafilter post, that must be the vocation where butt muscle inventory most frequently occurs because equipoise chimed in with this: "I'm guessing [that a previous responder who said that you can't move each side of your butt independently] is not a bellydancer. In Middle Eastern dance,, you can shake your hips by squeezing the right glute, then the left, then the right, etc. ... From experience, you definitely have a separate muscle in each buttock."

What's the origin of the phrase "tractor beam"? "We're caught in a tractor beam! It's pulling us in!" So says Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. This may not be the first time I heard the phrase "tractor beam," but it's certainly the first I remember. But how one earth did a piece of farm equipment come to be associated with staple of science-fiction?

Surprisingly, there's a website devoted to questions just like this one. Science Fiction Citations describes its mission as "hunting for the earliest citations of sf words," and "tractor beam" is one of its many entries. It traces the phrase back to the 1931 story by E. E. Smith entitled "Spacehounds of IPC," which includes the line "Brandon swung mighty tractor beams upon the severed halves of the Jovian vessel, then extended a couple of smaller rays to meet the two little figures ..."

I found a few other pages that corroborated this, but all just attributed it the phrase to Smith without speculating as to why he chose the word "tractor." But in this discussion thread (Google cache), someone posits a fairly plausible hypothesis: that "tractor" is just short for "attractor." And someone else points out that there is no need to look beyond the dictionary for an explanation: the word "tractor" has, as one of its definitions, "something that pulls or draws."

Bonus fact: accorording to this essay, E. E. Smith also gave us the words "forcefield," "mothership," and "hyperspace."

Why, in legal contracts, are some line written in all capitals? I recently had to sign a lengthy indemnity waiver for an event I will soon be participating in, and while most of it was written using the standard rules of capitalization, there were many passages which were written in all-caps. That got me to wondering if the passages in all capitals shared some property, and were capitalized out of legal necessity or tradition.

I asked local blogger and legal mind Snarky, and here's what he wrote:

Items in contracts that are in BOLD AND ALL CAPITALS are usually those areas in which (1) they are asking for an explicit waiver of an important right (and thus can claim that a reasonable person would not have overlooked the item); (2) are contractual terms that vary greatly from what a common law presumption of the terms would be, were that item not present; or (3) for mere decoration (such as "BUYER" and "SELLER" in a buy/sell contract).
Doing a little legwork on my own, I found what probably explains the presence of all-cap statements in contracts. The General Definitions section, and one thing you can do to automatically render a portion of text "conspicuous" is to put it "in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text."

July 19, 2005

Excercise Tip

If you are a jogger and currently over your desired target weight, avoid running down steep inclines. Your additional mass will put undue strain on your knee joints and ligaments, greatly increasing the chance of injury. Also, you will feel every ounce of your surplus fat shake as you jounce down the hill, and that's a huge fucking drag.

Estate Planning

If anyone in Seattle wants to recommend a lawyer for estate planning, drop me a line or mention them in the comments. I need to get a will and a living will, and would prefer not to pay so much that there's nothing left to bequeath. Suggestions for estate planning software packages are also welcomed, thanks.

July 18, 2005

Worst Transformer Ever

I took The Squirrelly to the park. He ran around like a thing wild for 20 minutes, and then, upon the depletion of his very last joule of energy, abruptly transformed into Cranky Frankie.

"Ooooookay," I said, swinging him onto my shoulder. "I think that's enough park for one day." He half-assedly struggled for a bit, squirming until he was horizontal, but then gave up and went limp.

Defeated, he just lay boneless in my arms, alternating between shrieks of anger and insincere sobbing. At that moment a young girl, maybe six, and her mother walked by. The daughter tugged on her mother's shirt, pointed at The Squirrelly, and said "Mommy, what's that?"

Speaking Of Headlines ...



[ link | News]

July 15, 2005

Headline News


[ link | News]

July 13, 2005

Oh My God, It's Full Of Stars

The new Google Earth application lets you zoom in on any place in the world, and then overlay the satellite image with the locations of commonly-searched for establishments, such as grocery stores, bars, and schools.

On an online forum I frequent, someone posted this Google Earth map:

That's pretty amazing but, frankly, I find this even more telling.

July 12, 2005

White Wedding

You kids today have it so easy. Back when I was in the dating pool, if you were speaking to someone you'd just met at a bar or a party and wanted to assertain their availabilitiy, you had to wait until they looked away and then surreptitiously glance at thier left hand to see if they were wearing a wedding band.

Now, of course, you can determine someone's marital status immediately, and without ever looking away from their face. You just ask yourself, "did this person have his or her teeth whitened in the last 12 months?"

July 11, 2005

Roving Reporter

A primer for the Karl Rove / Valerie Plame scandal.

The Introduction You Can Feel Free To Skip

This is not a political blog, and I imagine that a large percentage of my readers don't read political blogs on a regular basis. If you do, this probably doesn't contain any information you don't already know (assuming you are up-to-date with the latest bombshell.)

For the rest of you, I want to give you a primer on the whole Karl Rove / Valerie Plame thing you may have been hearing about. Not because I happen to think it's a huge story, but because it's slowly turning into a real, juicy political scandal of the sort you'd expect to find in a David Baldacci novel, complete with surprise twists, double-crosses, and an honest-to-goodness spy.

It's been very entertaining to watch the whole thing unfold, because information has been coming out in dribs and drabs, like a fireworks show with big pauses in it. Every once in a while there's a big, flashy explosion followed by a lengthy silence, and just as you say "well, I guess it's over" and start to get out of of your lawn chair: poom! here comes the next round. And it looks as though things are going to get more interesting yet.

But the downside to the "dribs and drabs" aspect of this drama is that it has been going on for nearly three years, and most of the recent articles assume you know the whole backstory. You can get an exhaustive account of the story over at Wikipedia: Valerie Plame. This is intended to be a brief primer for those who are only now joining the fun, and just want the Cliff's Notes for the imbroglio.

First, though, let's get this out of the way. Disclaimer: I do not like the Bush administration, and I don't like Karl Rove. So I'm feeling no small amount of schadenfreude as I watch all this come down the pike. There's my bias, right up front. That said, I will try to stick to the facts, except where I specifically cite something as speculation. If you feel like I have a fact wrong, drop me a line or let me know in the comments.


The Back Story

In early 2002 the CIA was trying to verify a report that Niger had sold uranium-enriched yellowcake to Iraq in the late 1990s. They asked former ambassador Joseph Wilson to travel to Niger and check out the story. He did so in February of 2002, and, upon returning a month later, told the CIA that the story was likely bogus.

The matter was presumed settled until September 2002, when a "white paper" used by the British Government stated the yellowcake story as fact. Then, in the State of the Union speech of January, 2003, Bush referenced this document, saying, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." As yellowcake can be used to create WMDs, this claim was central to Bush's case for war.

The invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003.

Wilson publicly denounced the "uranium from Africa" line in the months following the State of the Union speech. On July 6, 2003, The New York Times carried an article by Wilson called "What I Didn't Find In Africa"; of the yellowcake rumor, he wrote "It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place."

On July 14, 2003, columnist Robert Novak wrote about the Bush / Wilson, he-said / he-said dispute in the article "Mission To Niger" "Wilson never worked for the CIA," wrote Novak, "but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger."

The Scandal

Two days after Novak's column appeared, David Corn of The Nation led an article entitled "A White House Smear" with the lines

Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a US intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security -- and break the law -- in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others? It sure looks that way, if conservative journalist Bob Novak can be trusted.
By identifying Wilson's wife as "an Agency operative," Novak had apparently blown her cover. And if, as Novak stated, the information came from "senior administration officials," they (the officials) may have run afoul of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which makes it a felony for persons with access to it classified information to knowingly reveal the identity of covert agents.

Wilson alleged that the White House had outed his wife as retribution for his whistleblowing. Others speculate that the purpose of the leak was to discredit Wilson by implying that his trip was just a gig his wife managed to get him. Whatever the reason, Wilson thought he knew the source: during a roundtable discussion in August of 2003, Wilson said, of the leak, "At the end of the day, it's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs. And trust me, when I use that name, I measure my words."

In the wake of this comment, speculation grew that Rove, George Bush's senior political adviser, was behind the leak. When asked about the possibility, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said "I haven't heard that. That's just totally ridiculous." A few days later McClellan went even farther when asked if Bush had personally asked Rove if he was behind the leak. "[Rove] wasn't involved," McClellan said. "The President knows he wasn't involved."

The Investigation

At the end of September 2003 the Justice Department announced a full-scale investigation into the leak.

And then nothing seemed to happen for months: no findings were announced, and it was unclear how the investigation was progressing, or if it was progressing at all. Some felt that, with Ashcroft both Attorney General and friend to Bush, he would simply put the kibosh on the whole thing. For folks like myself, who had been following the story with interest, this seemed like the end of the line. My guess was that they would stall for a few months or years and then quietly announce, at 4:35 on a Friday afternoon, that they had been unable find the culprit. And that would be that.

But then a couple of surprising things happened.

First, Ashcroft recused himself from the case in December 2003. When US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald replaced Ashcroft on the investigation, one of his first acts was to subpoena the phone records of Air Force One. Suddenly the story was back in the news, albeit on page A13.

When asked about the case in February, 2004, Bush said "If there's a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is ... if the person has violated law, that person will be taken care of."

Fitzgerald continued to work on the investigation throughout 2004. Bush was interviewed in June; various reporters were hauled in front of the grand jury over the course of the year and either testified or held their tongues.

In an August 2004 CNN interview, Rove said of Plame "I didn't know her name and didn't leak her name." Note the wording.

Rove himself testified before the jury in October. Then came the election of 2004, and the story (again) appeared to have ended with a whimper.

Reveal Your Sources

Robert Novak was not the only person to have had Valerie Plame's name whispered into his ear -- he was just the first to put it into print. In fact, a number of journalists were told of Plame's identity in early July of 2003. For instance, a piece for TIME Magazine called "A War on Wilson?" published on July 17, 2003 (three days after Novak's column) said "some government officials have noted to TIME in interviews ... that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." The lead writer on that story was a reporter by the name of Matthew Cooper.

Cooper refused to reveal his source to the grand jury investigating the Plame leak, in defiance of a subpena from Fitzgerald. For this he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. In an effort to save him (presumably), TIME Magazine -- saying that it was not bound by its reporters' confidentially agreements -- turned over Cooper's notes to Fitzgerald, thereby revealing his source. Fitzgerald, however, insisted that Cooper personally testify or go to jail. Cooper again refused and prepared for the pokey.

Then on July 10 of this year, days before he was to go to prison, Cooper suddenly reversed himself and said that he would testify after all. "A short time ago, in somewhat dramatic fashion, I received an express personal release from my source," Cooper said of his abrupt change of heart.

Cooper (and Cooper's notes) identified the source of the leak as Karl Rove.


Two big developments today.

Those of us rooting for Rove's downfall were a little discouraged when we heard that Cooper had received "express personal release from my source" to testify. After all, if Rove said "go ahead," he must not have considered himself to be in too much trouble. Today, however, we learned that Cooper's "release from my source" did not, in fact, come from his source at all.

Rove long ago signed a blanket waiver, given to him by Fitzgerald, saying that reporters were free to discuss any conversations they had with him about the Plame leak. Cooper, however, concluded that Rove was coerced into signing this waiver (after all, in refusing to do so he would have outed himself as the leaker) and his oath of confidentiality was still in force. So what changed? Well, apparently The Wall Street Journal spoke with Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, last week. Here's an excerpt from the resultant article:

Mr. Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, last week denied that Mr. Rove had contacted Mr. Cooper last Wednesday, and said that when Mr. Rove spoke to Mr. Cooper two years ago, "Karl didn't disclose Valerie Plame's identification to anyone. That's not a technical statement. That's as practical and direct as I can make it." He also told The Wall Street Journal that Mr. Rove had never asked any reporter to treat him as a confidential source in the matter, "so if Matt Cooper is going to jail to protect a source, it's not Karl he's protecting."
In other words, Luskin said (a) Rove signed a blanket waiver a while ago authorizing Cooper to reveal if he was the source; (b) Cooper is not revealing his source; therefore (c) Rove cannot be the leaker.

Cooper apparently decided that if Luskin's statement were true, then the inverse was also true: "if it is Karl Rove I'm protecting then I guess I don't have to go to jail, and can safely blab." Or perhaps Cooper was pissed that Luskin had flat-out lied. Or perhaps Cooper just really, really didn't want to go to jail and chickened out. Who knows?

The other big development today is that the White House has completely clammed up about the issue. Check out this video of Scott McClellan using 340 words to say "no comment" over and over again.

Crime and Punishment

So what's the upshot to all this? Is Rove going to be "frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs?"

In a word, no. Or, if he is, it probably won't be for outing Valerie Plame. Fitzgerald would have to show that Rove knew she was a covert agent when he told Cooper she worked for the CIA, and that might be tricky.

If Fitzgerald nails Rove for anything, it will likely be for perjury -- stating, under oath in front of the investigation's grand jury, that he did not reveal Plame's name to anyone. But we, the public, have no idea what Rove said during that testimony, and many find it hard to believe that Rove would have risked a perjury charge by fibbing.

In fact, we don't even know if Rove is the target of Fitzgerald investigation at all -- he might just be collateral damage. Remember, Novak said there were two government sources, and (unless I've missed something) we still don't know the identity of #2 (assuming there even is a #2). Maybe Fitzgerald is circling in on this guy.

It seems likely that Fitzgerald has something -- otherwise he wouldn't have been such a hardass with Cooper. But what it is, exactly, that Fitzgerald knows (or thinks he knows) remains a mystery, and its eventual revelation will be yet another surprise in an already bizarre case.

So there you go -- now you're up to date and can enjoy the show with the rest of us. Cheers!

July 05, 2005

Natural Selective Hearing

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet Chevalier de Lamarck (or "Petey" to his friends) was one of the earliest proponents of evolution, publishing his conjecture on the subject more than 50 years before the advent of The Origin of Species. The most prominent theory formulated by Lamarck was "the inheritance of acquired traits," stating that traits acquired by an organisms during its lifetime will be transmitted to its dependents. For instance, Lamarck postulated that giraffes spend their lives stretching to reach ever-higher leaves to eat and then pass their elongated necks on to their offspring. This principle, now known as "Lamarckism," was later refuted and superseded by Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Still, I can't help but think that Petey may have been onto something. After all, The Queen and I had been dating for 10 years before she mastered the ability to completely ignore me when I was saying something that she didn't want to hear, and it took me 10 years to learn how to do likewise for her, but The Squirrelly has had the ability to tune either of us out since the get-go.

July 01, 2005

TV On DVD: Battlestar Galactica

The Morning News used to have a quarterly featured entitled Of Recent Note, in which the contributing writers raved about whatever they were currently grooving on. In the Spring 2005 installment, for instance, I talked up Oracle Night, KEXP, and the St. Petersburg freeware game.

With the redesign, though, The Morning News has started featuring one item of note daily, and, again, I am one of the contributors. Two weeks ago I recommended Stumbleupon; today I'm singing the praises of, believe it or not, Battlestar Galactica.

In fact, Battlestar Galactica is largely the reason why I have still not seen Revenge of the Sith. The Queen and I had intended to go last week so I could finish my write-ups of the prequels, but after watching the three-hour BSG mini-series we were so surprised and impressed by the storytelling that we knew that Sith could only disappoint in its wake.

I'm not saying that the Battlestar Galactica mini-series is great. But at least it's actual space opera rather than an overwrought romance plastered onto a bunch of politics as scintillating as a typical two hours of C-Span.

The mini-series served as the pilot for a regular series, the first season of which will be released on DVD in August. I am looking forward to it. If you receive the Sci-Fi Channel and own a Tivo (or have the wherewithal to watch 13 straight hours of television), you can get up to speed on July 6th when they are going to air all the Season One episodes in one marathon block. (Apparently the episodes can also be acquired via BitTorrent, but I, of course, wouldn't know anything about that.) Then settle in for Season Two, premiering July 15.