The Laboratorium
December 2000

Disturbing Fact of the Day


The median age of death in sub-Saharan Africa is five.

The Ten-Thousand-Foot View


Home on vacation to spend Solstice with my family. Updates will be sporadic until the day before the Nones of Januarius of the MMDCCLIIIius year from the founding of the city.

Bad Ideas Dept.


For lunch today, I had vegetarian sushi in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

One meal, four separate mistakes.

1. I don't like sushi. 2. Vegetarian sushi? 3. In Minnesota? 4. In an AIRPORT? 20'12'00

Seattle Scene


Downtown on Saturday, I come across some folks with a car up on the sidewalk, stacking pieces of wood behind it so as to make a ramp off the curb down which it may drive without unduly sudden changes in altitude. Closer inspection reveals that the car has been painted in the style of a Japanese woodcut and its rear windows decorated with bamboo screens.

It turns out that the car is to be part of an art exhibit opening the first weekend in January at the Bryan Ohno Gallery. They had to drive the car into the gallery to see whether it would fit. I'll say just this much: it's a good thing the car was a compact model.

When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed Say something once, why say it again? 18'12'00

Genre Benre


Complete with Dogme-95-themed manifesto, it's a video weblog! Sadly, a number of things have tempered, perhaps unfairly, my appreciation of the idea.

One, I'm not sure about the etymological reasoning behind calling it a "vog." Two, my fascination by the enigmatic rule number nine of of the manifesto ("a vog is dziga vertov with a mac and a modem") was a bit reduced by the obligatory web search, from which I learned that Dziga Vertov was a post-Constructivist Soviet filmmaker. Third, something about the layout makes me feel as though the form is too much influenced by the dominant design patterns of weblogs. I'd have thought that some other spatial arrangment besides the familiar reverse-chronological weblog (with embedded video boxes) might have been more felicitious in exploring the possibilities of sequentially arranged video on the web.

Most tragically, though, I can't get the video streams to play for me. I've tried from three different computers now, and the best I've managed is a single still frame from each. I'm stuck in one of those dancing-about-architecture situations: I can see everything about this project except for those parts from which it derives its identity. If anyone can see the video segments, reader reviews will be welcomed with demonstrations of gratefulness.

Solar Santa


Across North America, Christmas Day this year will be marked by a solar eclipse. Dude.

Only a partial eclipse, though. Some things will be hidden, but not everything. 17'12'00

Stuff I Won’t Drink


Spotted at the supermarket today: Moose Drool (a brown ale), and DNA (alcoholic spring water).

I am, on the other hand, hoping that someone picks up on the marketing possibilites inherent in a line of Harry Potter-branded microbrews. Harry Porter, of course, plus Hagrid Stout, Dumbledore's Stumble-Beer, Weasley Wheat, Hogwarts' Finest, Nearly Headless Nick, Polyjuice Potion, Sirius Bock . . . the possibilities go on and on.

There is plenty of stuff I will drink, It just takes the right environment to get me going, to get me to open up and start spilling out those secret thoughts. 16'12'00

Proof that Politicians Don’t Listen


Billy Joel, "Captain Jack" (masturbation, drug use)

Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the U.S.A." (Vietnam, unemployment)

Neil Young, "Rockin' in the Free World (babies in dumpsters)

Democratic Party Animal


Why is Al Gore's post-concession bacchanal not getting more media attention? A group of Gore friends gathered Tuesday night at the vice-presidential residence to console Al on the final frustration of his life's ambition. Based on the crew from Madame Toussaud's behind Gore when he made his concession speech, one might have expected a fairly somber affair. And apparently, so it was, until Jon Bon Jovi got fed up and started inviting his friends to the "party at Gore's house."

As one might guess, when Jon Bon Jovi is on the case, you can assemble a pretty rocking party. Bon Jovi recruited Tom Petty, Stevie Wonder, and John Popper to form an impromptu Beatles cover band. Wyclef Jean was also in attendance, but didn't join in the music-making. Tipper Gore, on the other hand, did sit in with the band, playing the drums while Al cut loose on the dance floor.

If you think about it, this election boils down to a parable of hipness. On the one side, we see George W. Bush, a man who belongs not to his own generation but to his parents', a man whose election night party was to be headlined by Wayne Newton. On the other, we see Al Gore, child of the 1960s, whose favorite movie of last year was Being John Malkovich. Gore gets Jon Bon Jovi to play his private party; Bush gets cease-and-desist letters from Sting and John Mellencamp demanding that his campaign stop playing their songs at rallies. Neither of them is exactly down with the truly happening target demographics, perhaps, but if you had to pick one of the two for "The Real World: Washington D.C." from their questionaires, you'd go with Gore, hands down, right?

Well, you would, and I would, and that's why neither of us works for MTV. Al Gore is the guy who gets voted off the island in the fifth week, once they've weeded out the old and infirm and have turned on the boring. George Bush is the guy you want at your party: you never remember a word he says, but he gets everyone else in a good mood. Bush has always fit in, has never had to try for anything in his life. Gore has never quite fit in, always comes across as trying just a bit too hard. Look at their drugs: to score some coke, you need to know somebody who knows somebody, and once you've got some, you're the most personable fucker in the world, stumbling over your words, and everybody's best friend. Meanwhile, Al Gore is out behind the gym getting high with the other geeks, letting the weed take care of the tension he can't get rid of any other way, sliding into a comfortable haze and that longed-for feeling of belonging.

Looking at Gore, at his woodenness, at the goofy abandon in his eyes in that photograph, it's all so obvious. He's out there twenty hours a day trying with all his soul to be himself, to tell you about the causes that make him passionate, to shake that damn reputation for robotic behavior. And it's all no good, it never will truly work, and Al Gore knows it and that's his tragedy: that "real" Al Gore everyone's been looking for doesn't exist. There are some people who will never truly be comfortable in their own skins, and Al Gore is one of them, and they go through life never quite able to live up to our culture's standards of "natural" behavior. Look at that photo again. We all know what's going to happen: Al's about to clap on the downbeat.

It's a terrible burden, that sense. You can have wonderful friends, friends who know how to get you through the worst night of your life; you can have an important job, funky cultural tastes, a satisfying personal life -- you can have it all, and for all of it, you know you'll always be second banana, the butt of jokes, misunderstood and mocked, stuck with the curse of Cassandra: knowledge without persuasiveness. That burning fear is a terrific motivator. In every generation, it's the outcasts and the unhip who lead the cultural rebellion, whose overcompensation for their own discomfort makes them willing to pull in the temples on their own heads. Such might have been Al Gore's legacy, perhaps, but up to the very end he kept reaching out to those who scorned him, kept trying to play their game, to be part of their Cool Kids club, to tell them about this neat book he just read.

They ate him for lunch, of course, how could they not? They called him names and stole his election and stuffed him in a locker and got the hall monitors to look the other way as they beat him up until he went on national television and cried uncle. And then he walked home alone and went to his room and put on some of his favorite records. And wouldn't you know, after a bit, he got up and called some of his friends and they danced around and got some beers and had their own party, Cool Kids be damned.

My homage to Chase's homage to Al Gore, perhaps. I never got beat up, but even still I identify with Gore -- or perhaps I'm projecting. Even now, such is my legacy: how much more training in being natural, how much more hanging around the cool kids and pestering them to like me? That's always it, isn't it? That there are depths to oneself that one so desperately wants them to see, but no one is every quite looking one's way? 15'12'00

Word on the Street


The Stranger is reporting this week that Carissa's Wierd, my favorite Pacific Northwest violin-rock band, is about to uproot from Portland and move back to Seattle. To which I can only say, "In your face, Portland! Finders keepers, losers weepers!"

Bloglike Behavior


Time to take care of some housecleaning tasks around here and slam up a bunch of links I've had sitting around for a bit. First up, Dangerous Monkey keeps on linking here. It's the usual deal: you keep on looking for a chance to return the link and they keep on thwarting your plans by linking to you again. Well, I'm not going to wait around this time. I'm not really sure what the Monkey's deal is, but it turns up some pretty neat stuff. For example, a stick figure Tarot deck (a third-order link, actually, by way of Changed Priorities Ahead by way of Riley Dog), and a technically simple, yet wonderful bit of election agitprop. While on the subject of that whole reciprocal linking business, I'm fortunate that Tom Ewing changed the format of his regularly-updated online presence to one that doesn't link outwards, so I can link to him both with admiration and impunity.

Closer to home, Full Waffle Jacket is featuring the best eulogy for Al Gore I've seen. Chase has also updated his own links bar to include not a thing, which readers of this page may recognize, along with the inexplicable Dancing Sausage. Dancing Sausage, in turn, introduced me (through the magic of hyperlinking) to The Good Senator, who has a wonderful "where were you when?" for the Florida Supreme Court's last, doomed, ruling. Neither of these two latter sites includes email or a comment form, so I'm reduced to sharing my "hey, that's kind of cool" sentiments with the world at large.

Chase has also been plugging this RSS thing on his site for a while. RSS is a metadata format, built on top of XML, to used in describing the content of web sites and other kinds of content feeds. Sounds like a neat concept, and providing an RSS feed of the Lab has been something I've been contemplating for a bit. Well, the recent release of RSS 1.0 inspired me to go take a look at the actual RSS spec. As it turns out, this supposedly "extensible" format contains rules such as setting a maximum of 15 items per document and also maintains, for backwards compatibility purposes, text-input functionality. In software, the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, and no one ever learns anything. I'll wait for the next bus, thank you very much.

No new content today, only repackaging of existing content into the Lab channel. That is one idea of RSS that I do like: the concept that there are channels, and that your data gets passed on to someone else along potentially different channels. Here, for example, there is a channel for the principal daily scribblings, and another channel down here in the marginalia, and, so, you see, what starts out packaged together comes to you in different ways, depending on where you choose to look. 14'12'00

Our Long National Nightmare Can Finally Begin


Well, the clock ran out on the recounts, so it's all over now, baby blue. With all the yappery about "counting every vote" and "disenfranchisement of Florida" and equal protetction, I think it's important to disambiguate just what a further recount would have and wouldn't have accomplished. Precisely what did our country lose as a result of this weekend's legal buffoonery?

We count ballots because our system for choosing a President gives each state a certain number of electoral votes, and most states choose to give their electoral votes as a bloc to that candidate preferred by a plurality of their inhabitants. This is the American system as it currently exists, and this system requires that we actually figure out, within each state, who is the most-often preferred candidate. We make this determination by having each person record their preference on a ballot, and then counting up the ballots. Unfortunately, this count may not accurately reflect the numerical preferences of the population, for various reasons.

The zeroth reason that a count may not reflect the will of a majority is that not every person is allowed to vote or chooses to vote. Children, resident aliens, convicted felons, and citizens who have failed to register far enough in advance of the election are all barred from voting. Further, many of those eligible to vote do not. In the U.S., we have decided that the will of the ineligible and non-voting should not count, and so we collectively agree that this kind of "error" is no error at all. Our democracy is based on the will of a plurality of those eligible voters who choose to cast a ballot, and relatively few people object to this restriction.

The first real source of error in an election is that not every voter who attempts to vote succeeds in carrying out their intention. The vote of every African-American voter turned away from the polls for not having two forms of ID falls in this category, so does that of every member of the armed forces whose ballot was lost by the Post Office. In this category, too, we must place the votes of those tricked into voting for Buchanan by the butterfly ballot and the votes of every voter who wrote "I vote for George Bush" on their ballot instead of punching through the chad next to his name. Votes in this category will consistently be miscounted (or not counted at all), across any number of recounts, regardless of the technology or methodology used. [Note also that some of these skews between voter intention and recorded vote result in an "illegal" vote, whereas others result in a "legal" one that will be miscounted. I think this is a false distinction, in that in either case what will be counted is not what the voter meant by their attempt to vote.]

The second source of error is that some ballots may have been correctly executed and correctly counted at least once, but some subsequent error causes irreparable damage in such a way that any further recount will produce the same erroneous interpretation of them. If the handling involved in a manual recount of a perfectly ordinary vote were to fully detatch a second chad, that ballot would become -- permanently and incorrectly -- an illegal overvote. This case is the real screw case for counting boards, since it is a result of their actions and is intrinsically uncorrectable. It is also the case on which the Bush attorneys focused most strongly.

The third source of error in any counting process is that different counting technology or methodology will produce different results. Votematic machines will consistently fail to count half-detatched chads, although almost any method for a manual count will count them. Even within a manual recount, a standard that counts pregnant chads will consistently produce different results than a standard that does not. This counts as "error" in that the results are sensitive to the standards for measurement, but those standards have very little to do with the intent of the voter and a great deal to do with the physical artifact of the ballot. These technique-sensitive differences cause a systemic error, in that the error caused by repeatedly using the "wrong" standard will appear identically in every recount using that standard. You can't fix an unfair method by repeating it: this was the argument most strongly used by the Gore camp during the various state-level lawsuits, and they focused most of their efforts on errors in this category.

The fourth, final, and most disturbing category of counting errors is that two counts conducted according to identical methodology will still differ, due to purely random factors, the unforgiving laws of probability. and human and mechanical imperfection. Such errors are a stochastic component to the measurement error, a threshold of accuracy beneath which no count's resolving power should be trusted. This is the sense in which machine counts are highly "accurate:" two successive machine counts are likely to agree with each other more closely than two successive hand counts. Even still, on fringe cases, the machines will disagree with themselves sometimes.

If your election is riddled with errors in categories one and two, you're kind of stuck with them. Errors of the first kind are variously easy and difficult to allege and to prove, but impossible to correct, short of a revote. Errors of the the second kind are detectable only circumstantially and in the aggregate, and are equally impossible to undo. The physical evidence that might allow for remedial action simply doesn't exist. I think there were pretty substantial errors of the first kind in Florida, but probably very few errors of the second kind. The Bush camp alleges exactly the opposite (although their argument largely collapses under even the most minimal statistical treatment). Either way, nothing much is going to happen about it, other than Jesse Jackson working the streets overtime to make damn sure it doesn't happen again.

Errors in categories three and four are the more difficult ones, because you can do something about them -- and in Florida, the error bars caused by these sorts of errors were large enough that both "Bush wins" and "Gore wins" fell within the range they defined. It was the fight over errors of the third kind -- you get what you measure for -- that sent the case up to the Supreme Court and back down again twice, without resolution. It is, in theory, a question with a resolution (and to this general claim, almost everyone in the case assented, albeit in variously self-serving ways): someone sets a uniform and fully legitimate standard that we generally agree is a reasonable line to draw. Perhaps that line might even be drawn non-ideologically. One can still dream, no?

No, it's errors in the fourth cateogry that are the truly horrifying ones. There's lots of strong evidence from Florida that the systemic errors inherent to Votematic machine counts are sufficiently high that one is forced into the territory of manual recounts, with their higher stochastic errors. In order to eliminate a few thousand miscounted votes caused by category-three failures to machine-count partially-detatched-chad ballots, one has to deal with the category-four failures of manual recounts, on the order of a difference of perhaps a dozen to a few hundred between successive manual counts. And this is why we're so screwed down in Florida: the margin of victory, quite possibly, is comparable in magnitude to these swings betweeen successive counts.

In the world of statistics, we're looking at a problem of measurement error not entirely unlike thpse faced by pollsters who must declare margins of error on every "measurement" they take of the public mood. You can set up statistical models of the differences between recounts, and extrapolate from the standard deviation of a set of counts of the same set of ballots to estimate the intrinsic variability of such counts, then average across larger and larger numbers of counts until your variance becomes acceptably small. Alternatively, you can model probabilistically the likelihood of an error in each individual ballot examiniation, and from this model compute the expected variability in successive recounts, and then compute the number of recounts needed to bring that variability down.

You see the problem, though. It's the tradeoff between accuracy and confidence. Statistics can tell us, given some set of recounts, what the probability is that the "winner" they name really does have more votes (ignoring, for the moment, any of the first three kinds of errors). Usually, for most normal elections, when that set contains exactly one count, we can reject the null hypothesis (the other guy won) with extremely high probability. The odds that Bush really won the national popular vote (but random fluctuations in the counting made it seem that Gore won) are microscopic. Given that we routinely accept as ironclad the margins of error from polls with 95% chance of being correct to their stated accuracy, it's extremely safe to say that Gore won the national popular vote. There's so much numerical leeway on the accuracy that we can have excellent confidence. In Florida, though, the error band around the one (partial) manual count that's been conducted is so large is sufficiently large that we just can't say, with the usual statistical confidence, that Bush really won. He has more votes in this count, it's more likely that he has more votes than Gore, future counts would be more likely to come up for Bush than for Gore, but that's as far as we can go. We just don't have enough evidence, statistically speaking, to call the election. Statistically, it's a tie. To make it otherwise, we need either one really good recount, or a large number of crappy ones.

So, why this excursion into probability? So I can make my real point about the conclusiveness of this election and those fuckheads on the Supreme Court. Bush is to be our next President. Our system has chosen a President. The system works, in the sense that when the gears stopped grinding, one man had won, and it all ran according to the rules laid down in the Constitution, various laws, and courts' interpretations of those laws. A definitive winner, a peaceful transfer of power, a concession from the loser. System working as designed.

What has failed in this case -- what the Supreme Court consigned to failure -- is our electoral system's claim to select the candidate who receives the majority of votes cast in enough states to provide a majority of electoral votes. The bizzare cut-off in Florida has left us without the necessary evidence to safely conclude that Bush got more votes there than Gore. Leave aside the civil rights issues, leave aside the question of the right standards for a count, leave aside the particulars. We don't have even a count that passes a reasonable category-three muster (thanks to the damn 1-2% error rate on the Votematics and their horrid inability to deal with partially-detached chad), let alone one that passes category-four muster.

I say the following as an ardent Gore supporter: there was a best possible result in Florida once the courts started getting involved. That best possible result was a statewide recount, using machines for most of the ballots and hand-examination of those ballots rejected by the machines. It's entirely possible, indeed I think it likely, that such a count would have produced a result sufficiently far away from a 50-50 perfect split that the winner would be unambiguous.

It also seems likely that that winner would have been Bush, but I think that would have been a far better result than what we wound up with, because such a result would have shown off our system working at a more basic and transparent level than the one that ultimately had to step in. It's one thing for the courts and legislatures to go through their hoops to make the election itself work; it's another thing for them to to through their hoops to make the Rube Goldberg device containing the election work. This is the real travesty of the Supreme Court's decision: they all but admitted that we don't have a conclusive set of results from Florida's vote, but did nothing to help us achieve such results.

Does this make George W. Bush illegitimate? Well, I think he's a bastard, but that's a separate issue. He didn't march into D.C. with guns and jackboots; everything was carried out according to Hoyle, in the sense that the Supreme Court signed off on the recount that might have changed the certified totals and the electors will vote and Congress will accept those votes and he'll be duly and properly sworn in. He's not illegitimate; but the simplified "system" of popular-vote-for-electors is, in the sense that it didn't work as specified and can't be trusted to. These last five weeks haven't materially affected my opinion of him or how he ought to be treated. He's acted like an overpriveleged shit, but well, we knew that much already. This whole mess doesn't make him any less President.

Does this make the Supreme Court illegitimate? I don't even think that question is meaningful. I think that Scalia and company are stupid and unimaginative for drafting such a manifestly dumb opinion; I think that O'Connor and Kennedy are craven for not facing up to the issues and for that messy per curiam business. Partisan? Yeah, but that doesn't make them not the Supreme Court. Come on. Reagan appointed Scalia because Scalia has certain opinions, not the other way around. Really. Where this "hurts" the "institution" of the Supreme Court in my playbook is that the 5-4 division is so much more apparent and its consequences so much more severe that I'm going to be pressuring the Senate Democrats to fight tooth and nail for centrist appointments. Which means more fighting over appointments, but jeez, like this is supposed to be any more delegitimizing than the confirmation fights over Bork and Thomas?

Does this make Al Gore illegitimate? If he'd conclusively lost, maybe it would have terminated his political career, a possibility we can only sit back and hope for now. Perhaps once he isn't running for President, he'll go back to fighting for the environment. One is still allowed to hope that something useful may come out of this whole mess.

A Brief Note for Lotvs-Readers


That phone number is real, in the sense that if you dial it, an actual phone will ring.

Which is not to say that an actual person will pick it up. Please note that any resemblance to any people, living or dead, real or fictional, or to any actual events, is entirely coincidental (with certain exceptions, but those people have been explicitly told of the uses I'm making of their experiences and ideas, and have equally explicitly consented to those uses). About this, I am not kidding. If something seems familiar about Ben's story, then it's entirely because certain things really are universal, or because I've managed to succeed in my attempts to recreate the feeling of reality and the resonances of certain experiences. Ben has his secrets, sure, but if you're looking for mine, you should look closer to home than in that far-off Land. 13'12'00

Florida and the Death of Justice


I've had my eye on that state for a while: it seems that whenever constitutional evil is being perpetrated in this country, Florida is mixed up in the mess, and never in a good way. A bit of legal history, perhaps:

The College Savings Bank sells certificates of deposit whose yield is indexed to the cost of a college education. The CSB took out a patent on the concept of such CDs and the investment strategies they were using in order to be able to meet their obligations to families buying the CDs. Florida liked this idea and decided, under the auspices of the Florida Prepaid College Board (a.k.a. the Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board, the name by which it shows up in all the legal documents) to offer a similar plan to its residents for prepaying tuition to a variety of Florida colleges. The College Savings Bank was upset, perhaps understandably, and sued Florida (in a New Jersey court) for patent infringement and for false advertising.

Florida fought the case tooth and nail on the grounds of sovereign immunity, the doctrine that a "sovereign" entity (usually a federal or state government) enjoys an absolute "immnuity" from being sued. That is, you can't sue a government unless they specifically allow you to. Historically, sovereign immunity goes back to the days when feudal lords maintained their own courts of justice -- you couldn't sue a lord for anything he did in his capacity as a sovereign lord. The rule is set out specifically as the 11th Amendment to the Constitution:

The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.

The U.S. Constitution makes some exceptions to this principle (usually by reserving to Congress certain powers, as over money, foreign policy, and commerce), and various acts of Congress have carved out other exceptions. In particular, Congess passed a 1992 law abrogating states' sovereign immunity in the case of patent infringment, so that states could be sued for intellectual property violations in federal court. In appealing to the Supreme Court, Florida maintained that Congress lacked the authority for such an action. [To quote from A Man for All Seasons), Florida held that Congress "'has not the competence', or words to that effect."]

The Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-4, agreed with Florida. Specifically, the Court had previously ruled that Congress's normal operating powers (those deriving from Article I of the Constitution, principally the good old Interstate Commerce Clause) didn't give it the authority to strip states of their immunity. On the other hand, the 14th Amendment did give Congress such powers. The first paragraph of the Amendment limits the arbitrary sovereign powers of states:

Section 1. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

and the fifth paragraph gives Congress the power to enforce those limits:

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Boiled down, in FLORIDA PREPAID POSTSECONDARY EDUCATION EXPENSE BOARD v. COLLEGE SAVINGS BANK et al., the majority held that, in order to rip into sovereign immunity, Congress needed to a) prove that the states were doing something in violation of 1), and b) prove that Congress's legislative response satisfied 5) by being appropriately targeted to that violation. And when it came to patent infringement, the majority said "no dice: states infringing on patents isn't important enough to make a Federal case out of, and besides, your response is way too broad."

I'm not going to get into the meat of that part of the argument -- the opinion and the dissents both got pretty heavily into the technical details of patent law and the uniformity of intellectual property standards -- other than to say that, while one may disagree with it (as I do), one probably needs to grant (as I do) that the underlying Constitutional reasoning is at least defensible. The Amendment says such-and-such, and this is what such-and-such means, and this-that-and-the-other don't pass muster according to that interpretation of such-and-such. It's a valid piece of legal reasoning.

No, where I start plotzing is when I start thinking about the implications of that reasoning. Florida may perfectly well be engaged in violations of patent law that any private citizen or entity would be liable up the wazoo for, but its sovereign immunity protects it from being sued in a Federal court. On the other hand, that same principle also shields Florida from being sued in a state court. The old English common-law principle was that "[The King] can not be compelled to answer in his own court, but this is true of every petty lord of every petty manor." A state may not be named as a defendant in its own courts unless it has specifically waived its sovereign immunity. The difference between then and now, though, is that back in Olde England, you couldn't sue your lord in his own court, but you could sue him in his lord's court -- the very avenue the Supreme Court closed off in this case.

Thus, while the ruling may have rested on what seems like a wholly legitimate constitutional reading, following through on that reading creates a profoundly unjust situation, in that it creates situations in which an offense can be identified for which there can be no legal redress. Any action carried out by a state which fails to meet the criteria of the Supreme Court's two-part 14th Amendment test and for which the state itself provides no remedy is effectively uncontestable, even if that action, considered in isolation, violates 1) of the 14th Amendment. Reading 5) as a limitation on Congress's dictatorial powers results in the creation of not one potentially dictatoral legislature, but fifty. You follow one legal principle far enough -- in this case, sovereignty -- and you wind up squelching another -- the right to judicial redress for wrongs committed. A state can violate your patents, lie to you over the radio, even break Federal laws while engaged in activities totally unrelated to any governmental function, and still enjoy total immunity from any suit you could possibly bring over it. Basically, the College Savings Bank was shit out of luck, just because the Florida Prepaid College Board had the good fortune to be affiliated with the State of Florida.

Having won itself the right to steal the products of your thought, Florida proceeded to ask the Supreme Court to exempt it from the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Using essentially the same reasoning, the Supreme Court ruled, in KIMEL et al. v. FLORIDA BOARD OF REGENTS et al., again by a vote of 5-4, that states could not be sued for monetary damages for age discrimination. In many ways, this is a far more egregious case than the College Savings Board one, since the harm involved is so much more directly identifiable. Thanks to its buddies on the Supreme Court, Florida is now free to behave barbarically towards its employees. Unless it's directly a violation of the U.S. Constitution, pretty much nothing is sacred. It's a loophole you could drive a truck through, and Florida has.

I've taken this little journey through recent legal history for a reason: I'm about to discuss another 5-4 Supreme Court decision that starts from a reasonable-seeming reading and winds up creating another category of wrongs without possible redress, and once again, it's all damn Florida's fault. I refer, of course, to Bush v. Gore.

When it comes to stupidly narrow readings, Florida really tried to push its luck. Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution states, regarding the selection of Presidential electors, that "Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors." Arguing before the Supreme Court on Monday, Bush lawyer Ted Olson tried to convince the Court that this language vests complete power over the election in the state legislature, so that the lack of any language in Florida's election statues specifically allowing the Florida Supreme Court to adjudicate disputed elections should be construed as a Federally-sanctioned ban on their stepping into the process.

A moment's thought makes clear just how frightening that line of reasoning is. The Florida statutes do give a role to circuit courts, so, by Olsonian implication, any decisions made there are unappealable, thus giving Florida one highest court for most matters, and an entirely different set specifically for U.S. Presidential elections. A similarly bizzare exceptionalism applies to the question of final authority in setting statutes: if the Florida Supreme Court were to overrule an act of Florida Legislature in setting election law as contravening the Florida State Constitution, would it have jurisdiction, or would such acts not be subject to normal constitutional review by dint of the Article II language? In normal practice, the courts in this country are assumed to hold final legal say when they rule against their corresponding legislative bodies, but this principle's constitutional groundings are almost never challenged, perhaps because the courts are careful not to press the issue too much. Any situation in which the court were given unassailable final say, or were entirely prohibited from enforcing their establishing constitution, would be a dangerous one indeed. The ambiguity of this grey area keeps both courts and legislatures in line: definitively elevating one or the other is just asking for trouble.

Olson was opening a huge can of worms with this argument, and he got grilled harshly on it by Kennedy and O'Connor, to the point where he openly admitted that "it may not be the most powerful argument we bring to this Court." The Supreme Court would have been inviting disaster to agree to this line of reasoning, and they did something even better than slapping it down: they completely sidestepped it. This jurisdictional argument doesn't enter into their final judgement -- the majority found grounds enough to reverse the Florida Supreme Court decision without needing to pull the pin on the Article II grenade.

That majority opinion, which clocked in at 5-4 yet again (and every 5-4 I've mentioned so far has been the exact same five and the exact same four), did, however, buy into another one of Florida's hideous readings of iniquity: that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment (the last clause of 1), above) required the voiding of the Florida Supreme Court's ambiguous "intent of the voter" standard for ordering manual recounts.

It is, at least in theory, a tempting and plausible line of reasoning. In exercising their rights as voters, Florida citizens are entitled to equality in the way their votes are counted. The state must not discriminate against some of them by applying different standards when counting their votes, by allowing some of them to vote merely by dimpling a chad while requiring others to fully detach it from the ballot. And thus, the Florida Supreme Court erred by ordering a recount while failing to set rules for that recount which would guarantee compliance with the Equal Protection Clause.

Before I get into the awful consequences of this line of reasoning, I'd like to do my best to tear it to shreds (partly by cribbing a bit from the dissenting opinions). The first, and best, counterargument is that the status quo restored by vacating the Florida Supreme Court's ruling of the 8th itself contains sufficiently blatant violations of Equal Protection that the Equal Protection justification for returning to that state of affairs fails. Justice Souter made precisely this point in his dissent: the currently certified vote totals in Florida already use such a mishmash of methodology and technology that their Equal Protection bona fides are just as suspect. The second argument I see is that the lack of a specific standard in the Florida Supreme Court's ruling does not preclude a recount's compliance with the Clause: one could hold, variously, that the implementing magistrate (Judge Lewis), or the various canvassing boards might be entrusted with setting more specific standards, or even that the lack of an articulated standard does not in itself violate Equal Protection. And thirdly, the argument that the United States Supreme Court must intervene to directly block such violations flies in the face of the Court's earlier rulings that the 14th Amendment's 5) precludes such federal interventions. That is to say, when did the Fearsome Five suddenly start believing that the 14th Amendment allows -- nay, requires -- proactive steps at the Federal level? [Now you see, perhaps, why I went into such excruciating detail when discussing the College Savings Bank case -- and also why Olson pushed his Article II claims so strongly].

Over and above my belief that the Equal Protection argument is an unsound one, I think that sticking to it creates an unjust situation. The majority reverses the decision to order a manual recount, but otherwise throws the case back to the Florida Supreme Court. Given the December 12th "safe harbor" deadline and the December 18th deadline for the meeting of electors, the per curiam opinion questions the feasibility of any further recount, even one satisfying the Equal Protection clause. That is, the Court ruled that there is longer time for a constitutional recount, so that the one ordered by the Florida Supreme Court must therefore be unconstitutional.

This is where the screaming starts. One, the finality of the December 12th deadline rests on the "safe harbor" provision, specifically on the Florida Legislature's implied desire to satisfy that deadline. Thus, a legislative action, even an implicit one, a priori precludes judicial discretion and review. Two, the impossibility of completing an uniform count by that time has been cauesd, in large part, by the plaintiffs' (Bush, Cheney, and the altogether evil state of Florida) actions to delay and prevent such a count, and also to contest recounts in such a way as to maximize the differences in the counting standards. As a public position, such behavior is rank hypocrisy, but one might hope that the law looks upon such claims as it does upon self-made orphans' cries for mercy.

And three, the Supreme Court itself, through its December 4th remanding and its December 9th stay, was the decisive agent in making a timely recount impossible. The Supreme Court's very decision to hear the case, and the manner in which it chose to do so, were thus in some sense the deciding factor in the results of the case. The Court granted the preliminary injunction on the 9th on a "substantial liklihood" of victory for the plaintiffs, but in hindsight, part of the Court's decision is based on circumstances created by its own granting of the injunction -- raising the disturbing possibility that it might have ruled the other way had it not granted the injunction, so that its guess about its ultimate ruling acquired the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy. [Realistically, the Court probably wouldn't bave ruled any differently, but the Supreme Court of the United States, of all institutions, should not be violating the Mike Hyun rule. It's not as though the running out of time just happened, out of the blue.]

Still, what's done is done. The Supreme Court looked at the Equal Protection Clause and at the deadlines and concluded that nothing could be done. It didn't rule that nothing should be done, only that nothing could be done. It had the option to throw out the whole case. It didn't. It had the option to affirm the recounts or to order them under its own choice of standards. It didn't. Instead, it concluded that its hands were tied by the law, that the Florida Supreme Court's recount was no good and had to go, and beyond that, well, the Big Nine couldn't really agree, not even just the Five, so they didn't really do anything.

They let stand all sorts of supporting points the Bushies would have loved to have them throw out. They didn't argue with the evidence that there might be properly executed but uncounted ballots (even if one buys the argument that one need examine only the "legal votes," does not one still need to examine the ballots to separate those containing legal votes from those not?). They didn't say that recounts might not be warranted. They didn't contest that the Presidency might hang in the balance. They didn't reject claims that failure to recount might result in effective disenfranchisement. In short, they acknowledged (even if only by implication) that there existed either outright wrongs or the unexamined possibility of such wrongs, without leaving open any avenue for effective legal examination and redress of those wrongs. And thus we return to the College Savings Bank case, only this time Florida isn't just taking away people's intellectual property, it's taking away their fundamental enfranchisement as American citizens. And the Supreme Court, once again, stands by saying "Yes, quite possibly there's something wrong here, maybe so, but, so sorry, there's nothing to be done about it. The law, you see,"

It comes down to a contest of legal principles. Most Supreme Court cases do this -- what starts as a couple of people upset at each other turns into a huge Clash of the Titans, rock-em sock-em-style, one Big Word against another. [Dahlia Lithwick has a wonderful dispatch about this "shadow case" effect.] (That is, of course, why certain cases wind up before the Supreme Court, and others don't. Only the Big Issues percolate all the way up.) In this case, the Supremes stuck up for the fair and uniform counting of votes. They also stuck up for the reliability and finality of the electoral process. It's really hard for me to argue with either of these goals. They're good goals. It's just unfortunate that in protecting them, the Court decided to shortchange justice, in the form of your ability to rely on the courts to provide redress for wrongs you've suffered. I happen to think that this component of justice is so fundamental that it overrides almost anything else. This is one of of the two or three reasons we have a judicial system at all. But apparently the Supreme Court, by that same accursed 5-4 majority, disagrees.

Somewhere out there, Florida is laughing.

Nothing today on the election wrap-up itself. I fear there'll be time enough for that tomorrow. Plus, I needed to tend to Vlysses. Writing this, I felt two things: 1) The details and principles of law are really cool. 2) If Laurence Tribe and David Boies couldn't stop this from happening, law is a futile endeavour. In legal writing, there isn't supposed to be any reading between the lines, which is perhaps something else that appeals to me here, given how many pieces I write that I mean to be taken purely at face value. But then there are the footnotes . . . . 12'12'00

I Saw a Film Today, Oh Boy


Institutionalized Beatlemania is everywhere, it seems. The Anthomology project has just pumped out the book to match its CDs and videos: gargantuan and yet strangely non-comprehensive. Yellow Submarine was restored and rereleased last year, along with a whole line of rather frightening psychedelic rubber toys. The twentieth anniversary of John Lennon's murder occasioned a fair amount of twinned nostalgia -- half for day of his death and half for his heyday. And now A Hard Day's Night is back in theatres, with all of the attendant whoop-de-doo.

There's a huge amount out there on the existential meaning of the Beatles, on their symbolic and social importance to an era, a generation, and music itself. It's hard for me to say anything to such commentary: I wasn't there for the first go-round. I missed the Beatles when they were happening for real, through no fault of my own. And sure, I may look with incredulity on claims that the Beatles of 1964 are the complete embodiment of innocent faith and of the social moment that would become flower power -- but what do I know? I have only what the Beatles left behind: a double handful of albums and the screaming faces of their fans during the concert that closes A Hard Day's Night.

I've been listening to some of their music a bunch recently, and the more closely I listen, the more blown-away I get. I've settled into a pattern with them: I buy another album, on the strength of all the other ones. I listen to it once or twice and think it okay, but not at the level of the rest. And then I'm unable to listen to anything else for a few days; it goes on endless repeat and my jaw drops more and more to the floor as my new favorite songs come up. Perfectly shaped songs, not a note out of place, vocal harmonies exactly right, the song ends and you can't possibly imagine it having been any other way. "Yesterday" is the most-covered song in the world, but why? What could anyone else add to it?

When you listen to Beatles songs, they fit together -- the sound of their harmonies, the feel of the playing. There is a certain texture to all their work, a certain expectation for what the wonderful elements of the song will be. What really spins my head is the way that almost every Beatles song then takes those expectations and goes beyond them. Everything about the Beatles is recognizable, earthly, human, familiar -- so that my thought, every time I hear the quiver in John's voice during "A Day in the Life" is is "I didn't know humanity was capable of that." The Beatles didn't fall to Earth like a gift from another musical planet; they started out on Earth and never left it, and their gift was to show what unexpected musical richness this plain old Earth had within it.

Listening to their albums historically, what amazes me is not so much what they accomplished as how quickly they did it. Between Meet The Beatles and Abbey Road (the last-recorded of their albums, even though Let It Be came out later), including everything in between, slightly less than eight years went by. That's a pretty tough journey to make in the course of a lifetime, but the Fab Four made it in under a decade. But what is more, every time the Beatles tried out something new for them, it was new for everyone, which raises the bar maybe a hundred times higher. They invented rock for the better part of ten years, reinventing it -- and themselves -- something like every year or two. Just look at the trail of evidence.

In '62 and '63, they're putting out high-energy unpolished raw American rock, covering Chuck Berry and remaking your basic bass-drums-guitar two-minute rock song into something stripped-down and pure. By '64, they've figured out that classic pure "Beatles" sound, with their rich vocal harmonies and perfectly structured songs. Within two years, they're already deconstructing that sound, adding session players and pushing outwards musically. In '67, they record and release Sgt. Pepper, redefining the genre of the rock album with unprecedented studio techniques, and nothing will ever be the same. The White Album - in the very next year - makes Sgt. Pepper sound like a quaint and oddly naive curiosity. Two years and two albums later, it's all over, but not before the continuous cavalcade of music that closes out Abbey Road has called into question even the very idea of a "song." And not once, not even for a minute, did they stop recording songs that would bring a tap to your toe and a tear to your eye. The Beatles spent the '60s locked in a musical arms race with the entire rest of the world.

Such was their music, their legacy to me and to other musicians. Seeing A Hard Day's Night made me, for a moment, feel that I might understand their presence and their image, their legacy to their fans. The film pulses with energy, with the dry and childish glee of the Beatles themselves, jamming in a baggage compartment, romping in a field, goofing on one another and all around. It's the musical segments in which the film genuinely explodes, when the power of their music rubs up against the vitality of their presence. The pure state of Beatle-dom comes across as a beatific condition. The screaming at last became comprehensible to me, the response of the fans to being as close as they could ever come to that impossible-to-reach state, the pure frustration of being so close and realizing that nothing in this world would ever let you cross that ineffable barrier into the heightened state of grace that shrouded them.

For, although the Beatles were very much of and for this world, there was something to them also that polished and refined and purified worldliness into a singularity, to something you could never stare directly at or think too carefully about. Look at George's Vulcan face when he steps to the microphone, those ears and eyebrows and the focused eyes -- there is something there that cannot be faced directly. All you can do is give it a mop-top and a guitar and hope to hide it. Perhaps the entire history of the Beatles after the Beatles has consisted solely of this: everything, from Paul McCartney's symphonic works to Ringo's star turn as a foot-high train-conductor, has all been an elaborate project of dilution, an attempt to take that dangerous spark at the Beatles' core and somehow bring it back into the world without destroying the world in the process. Which, you might say, if you were so inclined, explains why Lennon had to die.

Back in 1964, though, so much was still yet to come, and if you look at A Hard Day's Night, it's all there, all the contradictions and all the potential. The self-contained revelry as they romp in a field to "Can't Buy Me Love," John's playing with toy submarines and disappearing act from the bathtub, Ringo's goofy wanderings, the proto-postmoderninty of the pre-concert setup and the telecast, the mixture of peaceful unconcern and sharp subversion in everything the foursome do, and, above all else, the tear-stricken face of that one screaming fan, the rawness of her emotions. Their musical oddysey is in there, waiting to happen, the drugs and the love, the optimism and the rebellion.

Taking the joyous pulse of the world that surges around the Beatles' antics in A Hard Day's Night, I am almost ready to believe some of the wilder claims. Perhaps this was the magic of their social moment and their impact, that they came into a world that was essentially straightlaced (even if laced with the language of youthful disobedience) but profoundly optimistic and, partaking in that optimism, joined to it a strain of something more meaningful: mods and rockers joined together to become mockers. The Beatles, perhaps, helped a generation towards a fleeting engagement with the world-historical because they themselves were world-historical.

I never know where these things are going until I write them. Nor how long they'll take, which is invariably at least an hour more than I expect, often far more. BS quotient high, but 1) They really are that amazing. I lack the words to explain. 2) I can't resist a neat idea or a good line. Play me backwards to see whether Paul's dead. 11'12'00

The Collapse of Community


Jennifer Egan has an article in this week's New York Times magazine section about the growing importance of the Internet for gay teens. Especially for questioning teens growing up in small, closely-knit, and religiously anti-homosexual communities, the online world is becoming a major resource. Online, they can find the gay counterparts to the porn their straight peers can easily find in real life. Online, they can engage in the flirtation, obsession, and heartbreak straight teens can take part in without fear of violence. Online, they can escape from their communities' "No" to find others like themselves who say "Yes."

Let us be clear about what is taking place here: the Internet is eating away at the social fabric of these teens' real-life communities. They live in towns with strong social expectations, with strong ideas of right and wrong, ideas that parents are trying to pass along to their children. They live in towns held together by a complex network of formal and informal social relations, where everyone knows of everyone else and news spreads quickly. They live in towns that know what they will and won't accept of their inhabitants, where intense forces of disapproval can be summoned up to combat any socially disruptive behavior. And the Internet, like a communitarian's worst nightmare, has opened up a door from the fourth dimenson in the midst of all of this, a door these youths are eagerly stepping through, away from these social networks and away from all the social glue holding them together.

From a gay-friendly and tolerant point of view, such a claim is easy to dismiss: why should we honor the wishes of such intolerantly represssive communities? The Internet is bringing liberation to gay teens, in every positive sense of the word. That said, to focus on the benefits of that liberation without paying attention to its "costs" is a short-sighted approach, one that hurts itself most of all, by failing to consider why some people consider this liberation so threatening and what they might do to oppose it.

Consider censorware (examples drawn from this article, via Full Waffle Jacket). Almost every article debunking some piece of Internet filtering software contains a list of blocked sites, a list whose members are supposed to be so clearly unobjectionable that the intellectual futility of the filtering project should be immediatly obvious. Offroad biking sites blocked for containing the word "extreme" may be one thing, but gay and lesbian support sites are quite another. There are plenty of people out there who'd say that filtering software is working correctly when it blocks affirmation.org, a support group for gay and lesbian Mormons. Many people live their lives in denial of the reality of homosexuality, and if they could extend their no-homosexuals-here self-created mini-realities to the omnipresent "here" of the Internet, they would.

More sharply, the Internet promises things to gay teens against the wishes of their gay-hostile communities -- and what it promises is precisely tbe negation of the power those communities hold. To a teen discovering that his sexuality is in conflict with everything his elders are telling him, the Internet holds out the possibility of exactly that sort of radical destructiveness stereotypically assigned to the wishes of teens: to make all those authority figures just go away, to render the teen invincible against their disapproval.

It's easy to mock some of the more ontological claims of the cyberspace theorists, but looking over this issue, I find myself struck by the essence of truth within some of them. The Internet, here, is creating a separate mental and social space, one that does not exist under traditional supervision the way schools, sidewalks and malls do. Gay teens going online really are going somewhere, somewhere markedly different than the repressive homes they're logging in from. They are withdrawing from the community of their schoolmates in certain ways and substituting for it the very different connections they find online. In short, they are choosing to cut away at their citizenship in offline spaces, to reduce their involment with and allegiance to to school and state -- and, correspondingly, to cut away at the claims they allow these offline institutions to make on them.

Two thoughts emerge when looking over this situation. First, there is a tangled and dangerous issue of social and Internet policy here, and the Internet's anti-communitarian implications are only going to get more and more important. One crucial component in these teens' sexual self-discovery has been the ready availability of gay porn online, and I know of no position in tbe censorware debate able to face up to this fact without flinching. None, not even my own. In another direction, with Napster, copyright didn't suddenly come unglued from physical restrictions: it suddenly came unglued from social restrictions. Whether for good or for bad, the Internet greases social interactions, makes things go more easily but start to lose their grip.

And second, the specific effects may be new, but almost nothing in this story is specific to the Internet. There's another transition in the history of humanity that exposed some of these tensions, that held out the prospect of a new geographic space, one free of the tightly-knit bonds of community, a transition far more important than the Internet revolution, one that's been going on for millennia and is still taking place; I refer, of course, to the rise of cities.

You could call the city the proto-Internet, if you want: compared with rural agricultural or nomadic life, the city is a place of improbable juxtapositions, where everything is on top of everything else, where you can find anything you want if you know how to look for it. The city is a place of anonymity, where you can escape the consequences of your actions because the collective memory and gossip don't follow you in the same way, where you can try on new identities to see if they fit. The city is a place of sudden fortunes and opportunity, of hidden communities of the downtrodden, of new-found social energy and turmoil. The city, forever associated with depravity and corruption in the minds of country folk, has always appealed to the country's youth and its malcontents precisely because they saw something worth finding within that depravity and corruption, or just because it was something new. The city is wild, uncontrollable, dense beyond belief, unmappable, unknowable. The city was the model for the Internet, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Internet is the city's latest and greatest achievment in its campaign to hold sway over all of humanity. The Internet is the triumph of the urban mindset: the final liberation of all that the city stands for from the physical confines of the city itself.

For the questioning teens in small Southern towns could not go to the city, and so the city has gone to them. This is the missing context in Egan's article (or so it seems to me, with my somewhat limited knowledge of the history of the gay rights movement and the social history of homosexuality): she considers carefully the differences in the options open to gay and straight teens, so that her narrative is one of the ways in which gay teens can now achive a somewhat more "typical" teenage experience, and the ways in which their online (and online-inspired) gay experiences still differ from their peers' offline ones. Missing from this analysis (along with any discussion of how the Internet is changing straight teens' exploration of their sexuality) is any sense of history: what's new here, and what isn't?

America's major cities have had thriving, if hidden, gay subcultures for long before the Internet. Reading her write about the confusingly anonymous world of chat rooms, about the assumed and dropped identities, about the confusion and heartbreak these kids feel, about the tricky questions of age they juggle, I found myself asking, again and again, to what extent gays and lesbians discovering each other on the Internet are recapitulating the experience of gays and lesbians discovering each other in New York and San Francisco ten, twenty-five, or fifty years ago. How much does chat-room pseudonymity resemble bathhouse anonymity? Is the experience of teens who are out only online different from that of teens who are out only in the letters they write each other? Are the gay online communities Egan writes about fragile and wary because they are gay, or because they are online? (I suspect both, but Egan doesn't provide the evidence to properly consider the question.)

Or, perhaps, is there something profoundly similar about the "gay" and the "online" components to this question? Perhaps the trends Egan writes about have taken root because something in the disruptive but liminally creative nature of the Internet and its communitarian effects that itself recalls similar themes in the gay experience? We have here a social phenomenon that breaks down certain traditional assumptions about identity, that allows people to lead doubled existences, that prides itself on its ability to bring like together with like, that makes community out of shared knowledge and experience rather than geographical proximity, that punches through holes in a repressive reality, that many conservatives find deeply troubling, that grapples ambivalently with its sexual undercurrents. Meet the Internet: it's here, it's queer. Get used to it.

My usual pattern, no? 1) The Internet is fascinating, but 2) there's nothing new here, and 3) someone else is being dumb about it. As for my own doubled existence, some things I say more openly than others. 10'12'00

News Break


We interrupt this day to bring you the following rapidly developing story: Ehud Barak is resigning. Unlike our own forentertainment-purposes-only poltiical turmoil, the situation in the Middle East is both gravely serious and genuinely unpredictable. See http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/08/world/08ARAF.html?pagewanted=all for an ominous counterpoint to this development. And for more local developments, see elsewhere. 9'12'00

Shockers of the Day


Florida Supreme Court orders immediate recounts of all undervotes in Florida.

Kinko's does not sell pencils.

Yes, this comment wasn't here when I wrote this item. Shocker number three, if you want. Better to honor those traditions one still can, I suppose. It all goes to show: sometimes you need to pay attention to the things you wouldn't expect to change. 8'12'00

The Quality of Journalism is Not Strained


Fun reader challenge: determine what Al Gore said to George Bush in his concession retraction. More precisely, what were his exact words about being "snippy"? Possible contenders:

  • "You don't have to get snippy about this," (cnn.com)

  • "Well, there's no reason to get snippy," (cnn.com)

  • "You don't have to be snippy about it." (abcnews.com)

  • "...so snippy." (msnbc.com)

  • "Don't get snippy about it." (msnbc.com)

Not a wide range, perhaps, but five mutually contradictory possibilities seems a bit much. Welcome to the world's largest and most expensive game of Telephone.

Stuff We Don’t Like


By any accounts, it's an amazing play. Powell cuts left in front of the quarterback, fake handoff, the confusion gives the QB another solid second or two of coverage, after which he rifles it ten yards upfield right back to Powell, who spins in place, jumps a tackle. and proceeds to swipe left and right through basically the entire defensive backfield fifty-nine yards for the touchdown. A minute-twelve left on the clock, and the TD will bring them up by three, four if they make the extra point. Powell knows it, knows he's the hero of the moment, and so he can't resist slamming the ball down into the end-zone turf and pulling and pulling his hand across his throat in a gesture of mockery. So, of course, his little violence-inciting act of grandstanding draws a ten-yard penalty, no loss of down, but lighting only strikes once and they're back where they were, only ten yards worse off and they're going to be making fun of him tonight on the ESPN wrap-up.

What makes people take that one step too far, that extra unneceesary gesture that turns triumph into humiliation? I don't know, but I wince every time I see it happen. I think there's some sort of ingrained human instinct for not letting well enough alone, for wanting to turn every victory into a personal confirmation. And invariably, the result of that last little throwaway gesture is to undermine everything that made it possible, to reinterpret a perfectly respectable accomplishment as a purely personal issue.

Every time that "credibility" is at stake, this temptation makes itself known. I can't count the number of wonderful critiques of "cred" or of the absurdity of the whole notion of "selling out" that I've seen ruined by this urge. All is going along swimmingly, the author is making a perfectly good case for non-economic artistic criteria or saying something entirely intelligent, and then whoa, in the second-to-last paragraph, they need to remind you of their credibility, and here comes a listing of bands the author liked back when no one had heard of them all so nobody will believe this highly articulate critique could possibly be motivated by anything so base as the author's uncoolness. And yes, one thinks, the author is cool, they do buy into the system they've just been so loudly denouncing, and whoops, there goes the whole objective force of their argument.

It works the "other" way, too: the tirade at the high-school cafeteria table that ends with a quivering "who wants to be a part of your stupid club anyway?" will be forgotten soon enough, but not the plaintive desperation of that final question. Every criticism of modern art containing the sentence "my kid could do this" misses the point; Komar and Melamid (organizers of the recent "art by elephants" exhibit) would be more than happy to explain why. If you're going to make fun of the elitism of humor magazines, any critique containing an article "funnier" than the articles published in said magazine is, by this very inclusion, toothless. Refusing to stoop to your adversary's level carries a moral authority that, once surrendered, is extremely hard to regain.

The specific trigger for these musings is Rodney Rothman's recent article from The New Yorker about his weeks pretending to work for a dot-com, sneaking into the office on the pretext of being "from the Chicago branch", making inconsequential small talk, trying to look busy, and "surviving" a round of layoffs. In one of those wonderful O'Henry-esque twists, it turned out that Rothman made up a few parts of his story. Did he fake the big stuff -- his cover story, the layoffs, the anonymity of the office? NO! He lied about the small stuff: specifically, he hid the fact that his mother worked at the firm, and also he fabricated a story of a massage at the office.

Rothman's little escapade reminds me of a moment at the end of A Man for All Seasons, when the condemmed More turns to his betrayer and asks, almost with a smile, "Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but for Wales?" It profits a reporter nothing to perjure the truth for a murder . . . but for a massage? Rothman had his story, he had enough to prove whatever points he wanted to make, and he had to go and make up the massage? And now, of course, his "credibility" is shattered and everyone's laughing at him, but this doesn't change one bit those parts of his story The New Yorker stands by, the whole arc of his imaginary job. One almost feels sorry for him, to have had what I've seen called "the ultimate New Economy story" slip away from him over such a silly screw-up.

Almost. I disliked the article when I read it, though probably not for the reasons most of the Rothman-bashers out there dislike it. My complaint with "My Fake Job" is that it was too easy, that it comes from a reportorial universe where all conclusions are foreordained and the purpose of journalism is merely to confirm one's prejudices. Reading the article, you could keep a checklist of standard dot-com jokes, marking off each hoary "fact" as Rothman rediscovers it. Dot-coms don't actually do anything! Check. Technology is dehumanizing and people at technology companies don't know one another! Check. Dot-coms are in trouble, no questions why, and here come the layoffs! Check. Nobody knows what's going on at a dot-com! Check. Dot-com life, in true Dilbertian style, is best if you hide and pretend to be busy! Check. And so on and so forth.

The question as I see it, comes down to a big old economy "so what?" Rothman is a sojourner in the world of public perceptions of technology companies, out to maintain the charade of his own belonging. Much of the article is given over to his paranoia that his deception will be discovered, to his attempts to stave off any attention from his "coworkers." Usually when reporters go undercover at a workplace, it's to find something out. How do the line employees feel about management's cost-cutting mesaures? Is someone mixing sawdust into the cat food? How do day-traders handle the stress? Rothman went undercover at a dot-com to find out what, exactly? How well Rodney Rothman can hide? How well Rodney Rothman can mimic the mannerisms and speech patterns of people he's making no effort to understand? What the interior of a technology company looks like if you close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears? Invisible Man is motivated by a harsh social critique and by the frustrated rage of the narrator's desire for something, anything, of an identity; Rodney Rothman wants to be invisible.

It's a funny story, I'll give him that, but it's not journalism in any meaningful sense. I think this is why Rothman felt so free to play fast and loose with the details: he's telling a shaggy-dog story, and the point is laughter, not information. I'm not defending dot-coms, here, but I'm not attacking them either. I don't have anything to say on the topic right now, and my point is that Rothman doesn't, either.

A bit harsh, perhaps, and a bit in line with my usual "X sucks, but not for the reasons everyone else says it sucks" schema of writing, but still, something I had to say. Of course, I freely admit to hypocrisy here, to being just like Rothman when it comes to hiding. The difference being, perhaps, that unlike him I make no special claims to openness. 7'12'00

No News is Good News


What was I thinking? I left Thinking Inside the Box out when I updated the rants page yesterday. How could I possibly have been pulling together my writings on categorization while leaving out the one legitimately funny thing I wrote on the subject?

Answer: I was sick and barely mentally functional. Well, I'm better now, and able to think clearly, so I've fixed that mistake. Of course, the trigger for my recovery was my going out and laying in a serious supply of Kleenex and Sudafeds. I should have bought them a day earlier -- that way I'd have gotten better a day earlier, too.

But wait, there's more! 6'12'00

Deep-Sea Diving Suit


Cold still with me. I was drinking hot fluids basically non-stop today: it's been true all day that if I've had something hot to drink in the last five minutes, I feel fine, but all unpleasant and sniffly otherwise.

No cough, no throat troubles, and even my sinuses aren't all that achy. The principal effect of this particular cold is mental: my mind is sluggish, and I'm conscious of having to push through a goopy cloud of brain-mucus in order to formulate thoughts.

In my current mental state, creating new content is somewhat beyond me, and thus, I've added what I think will be the last round of stuff to the rants page. The latest collection is called "Arts and Sciences," and if that's not a grab bag, I don't know what is. The big prize there is The Sounds of Science, which hasn't been available anywhere on the Lab until now (although the really long-time readers will recognize it from the Potato-Eaters days).

I've also added "Notes on an Interview" to the stories page. Where am I going? The question is as relevant now as it was in 1998, or in 1999, perhaps more so. As in interviews, the answers are not as easy to find as the questions. 5'12'00

Good News, Bad News


I've got a cold. So far, not a bad one, but enough to annoy me and to really muck up my internal clock.

On the other hand, Pokey appears to be back.

Sprung the survey question on some orkers today. It appears that everyone wants to retire by the age of 30. Plans thereafter are ill-defined. To see further, I guess, one must decide to look. 4'12'00

Stuff We Like


Dahlia Lithwick writes the "Supreme Court Dispatches" column for Slate. Her writing is never short of inspired. I've started trying to memorize the following passage (from her dispatch on the presidential election lawsuit before the Court), so that I can crack people up by quoting it to them:

Poor Laurence Tribe. It's all Act V, Scene V, for him out there. Blood and mayhem. His 35 minutes before the court take place in another stratosphere: Where geniuses roam free and the federal Constitution is not safe for you and me. The gist of the dispute -- whether the Florida Supreme Court's equitable power to promote voting rights somehow trumps its duty to interpret legislation -- is barely comprehensible. Tribe goes head to head with Scalia on this point, and the light sabers are buzzing so hard no one can think. The one mortal moment happens when Tribe, at a rare loss, blurts: "The disenfranchising of people isn't very nice."

It's the kind of vivid reportage usually reserved for senior sportswriters, but Lithwick, perhaps responding to the arena-like nature of oral arguments, makes it work beautifully for legal reporting. In fact, Lithwick is the first beat reporter I've found myself really liking in a while: she's doing exciting things with the day-to-day process of going somewhere where something is happening and writing about what exactly it is that's happening there. Are her dispatches the wave of the future? I feel as though they just might be, and I sincerely hope so.

Lithwick almost makes journalism look fun. Almost. She understands that sometimes the commentary is less interesting than the action, when it comes to understanding what's going on. 3'12'00

Some Beachcombing


I've added a "Civic Culture" section to the rants page. This section is a bit more loosely held together than the other sections, since it has articles on politics, economics, and media culture. If you approach the section with the thought in mind that I thought of it as a coherent point of view, then you'll be approaching it with the right mindset to appreciate the point of view I tried to bring to the pieces in it.

Going Insane


Crazy Eddie lives! All of us who lived in or near New York in the 1980s had the Crazy Eddie TV and radio spots permanently burned into our subconscious. Breathless and google-eyed, Crazy Eddie would offer unbeatable deals on consumer electronics, including offering to beat any other retailer's advertised prices. There was an air of genuine madness in New York in those days: Ed Koch was mayor, Wall Street was giving the "Go-Go 80s" their name, and the whole city seethed with a dangerous cultural fever. Crazy Eddie was the visible sign and symbol of New York: in your face, fiscally irresponsible but irresistable, a wheeler-dealer's wheeler-dealer, always one step away from spontaneous combustion or institutionalization.

It couldn't last, of course, and the SEC caught up with Eddie Antar in 1987, when the Crazy Eddie empire collapsed as the enormity of the fraud behind it became clear. Investors in the chain -- which had held its IPO just three years before -- lost almost $150 million, the vast majority of which went into Antar family bank accounts overseas. The legal proceedings took a decade, partly because in 1990, as things were turing against him, Antar shaved his beard, obtained a Brazilian passport, went on the lam, and was finally tracked down two years later in a luxury condominium in Israel. Extradited to the US, he stood trial, was convicted, and managed to have the verdict overturned due to judicial predjucice, before finally pleading guilty in a retrial and going to jail. The sheer audacity of Antar's scheme has become the stuff of accounting legend. Part of me beams a little at the scale of the deception and the raw chutzpah involved: only in New York, I think proudly.

Even after the final verdict went against them, some of the Antar clan reopened a store under the Crazy Eddie brand name in 1998. Sometime since then, they decided to get into this 'internet' thing and established web presence. The site is mostly a portal, in the most derogatory sense of the term: it features a form to submit price quotes to be beaten (response via email) and an 888 phone number for similar inquiries. The after-hours response at the phone number should be charming to anyone familiar with the distinctly New York subculture of Orthodox Jewish electronics merchants, as the message lets you know that their Friday hours are "from 10 until half an hour before sundown" (and closed all day on the Sabbath), but doesn't tell you what time zone those hours belong to. New York's advanced case of monomania has survived the turn of the millennium intact.

Far and away the best part of the one-page site is the set of old school radio commercials. It's all there: the motormouthed announcer, the manic repetition, the inspiringly tinny music, the sometimes strange lack of specificity, even that final drawn out landing on "insaaane!" Depending on whether you were exposed to Crazy Eddie in your formative years, they offer either a flash of nostalgia or a window onto a strange parallel universe.

I'm comforted, in a way, that Crazy Eddie has entered the the high-flying and fast-crashing world of e-commerce. So many elements of the Crazy Eddie saga fit the classic dot-com stereotypes: the unsustainable business model, the ferocious and offbeat advertising, the fiercely self-destructive price competitiveness, the vague seediness of the behind-the-scenes operation, the colorful personalities, and the dramatic IPO followed in close order by an even more spectacular flameout. There's not so much new under the sun: investor folly and business fraud are older than bricks and mortar, and will survive, not unlike Crazy Eddie, far beyond any one boom-and-bust cycle.

Am I going insane? Perhaps. It can be hard to tell. Maybe the 'insanity' of the contemplations I'm starting to have is part of the appeal. Prepackaged madness is an easy sell, especially when it's so safe. But remember also this possibility, that my frauds are not always as easy to penetrate as Crazy Eddie's. 3'12'00

A Major Rebranding


DALLAS, Texas -- (FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE) -- Dec 2, 2000 --

DotComGuy Announces Major Rebranding, To Become PToPGuy

DotComGuy, the world leader in voluntary online privacy intrusion, today announced a major reorganization designed to refocus his key brand strengths and expand into to burgeoning peer-to-peer market. "Having been in the symbolic forefront of the e-commerce revolution, I'm very excited to take a leadership role in driving peer-to-peer to the next level it can achieve," said DotComGuy. As an indication of this new focus and as a brand-building move, he will change his name, effective January 1st, 2001, to "PToPGuy."

DotComGuy, who has been living in a webcast house and living entirely on goods and services purchased online, will transition to his new peer-to-peer role at the conclusion of his current sponsoring relationships. Springboarding off his large Internet fanbase, he will move into an existence entirely supported through the efforts of other innovative early-adopters. Using the revolutionary file-sharing technology pioneered Napster and partnering with other major ventures in the peer-to-peer arena, PToPGuy will use peer-to-peer technology to barter for food and other goods.

"I want to thank all the fans who've helped make the DotComGuy dream a reality," said DotComGuy, "And I think that the new brand really recognizes their role in the next-generation Internet and gives them the recognition they deserve. I'm looking forward to partnering with them in making PToPGuy even more successful. Honestly, dot-com just isn't where it's at anymore. P-to-P is the wave of the future."

The Public Health Sphere


The objection is raised: personally, i'd rather see effort and funding put into finding cures for diseases that aren't fully preventable, but that's just me

I'd like to put this issue in the context of a conversation I had today with a pragmatic environmentalist. He's not a global-warming zealot: he's as concerned, if not more, with toxin release, habitat destruction, water-table depletion, and a related set of other issues. Greenpeace flew fifty members to the Netherlands to push for progress on the latest round of Kyoto-accord talks: that's a lot of airfare, and he said he would have directed the money elsewhere.

Does he resent the emphasis? No. First off, the environmental movement magnifies concerns: it makes people willing to take small steps that have larger indirect benefits. Organically-raised food isn't all that much safer for the person who eats it, but it's far far better for the farm workers. Consumer consciousness about organic food is misplaced and slightly irrational, but the overall environmental impact of this consciouness is still highly positive. And secondly, one issue can be a wedge for other issues: a commitment to combatting global warming will have substantial contributions in fighting deforestation and reducing air pollution. Raised consciousness is raised consciousness: best not to look a Trojan Horse in the mouth.

So too, with AIDS. Should money be poured into AIDS research or basic public health measures? Put that way, public health, of course. But putting it that way is creating a false dichotomy. The preventability of AIDS is as much a matter of education as of "funding." Effort isn't a fixed pool that you can only draw so much out of: it's something you generate, something you renew, something you need to step back from and remind yourself of.

Silly, perhaps, to be spending huge sums on AIDS-drug cocktails when those sums could send decades worth of condoms into Central Africa. But this fact is silly in the same way that the whole industrialized First World is silly. Our entire planet is one large unresolved contradiction; the dichotomy between the North's and the South's experience of AIDS, I think, is little more egregious than most North/South dichotomies. And here at home, three quarters of a million reported cases of AIDS (and two fifths of that population still living with AIDS) is one of those numbers that does justify fairly serious investment. Investment in AIDS research has spillover benefits, has positive public health effects beyond its immediate results. AIDS research has proven one of the most politically palatable AIDS causes, one that really has helped forge a public consensus on the right responses to AIDS. Raised consciousness is raised consciousness . . .

That AIDS is "fully preventable" isn't a reason to avoid looking for cures. It's a reason to work like hell on prevention.

Yes, I did find this quote in an HTML comment. Not something I do here. No, I don't put the important stuff in comments . . . 1'12'00

One Twelve Zero-Zero


Today is World AIDS Day, dedicated to the continuing awareness of AIDS. The observance of World AIDS Day has spawned the Day Without Art, dedicated to raising AIDS awareness through artistic means (including, as the name implies, refraining from art). The Day Without Art, in turn, has spawned the Day Without Weblogs, a day in which participating weblogs "go dark" for a day, or feature a day of exclusively AIDS-themed content.

Today, the Laboratorium isn't featuring a DW^2 banner. It's not turning black. It's not deleting all the "regular" content. It's not running a long series of links to AIDS news, stories, and commentary. In short, the Lab today is just like the Lab any other day, except that today I'm writing about AIDS. The Lab, as it has come to understand itself, is a place for discussion and commentary, a way for me to say things that I think need to be said. For all the symbolism of silence, my contribution to the world here at the Lab has always been communication. And that's what I think the Lab's contribution to AIDS awareness can and must be: to keep talking, to not just shut up about things we already know about, but instead to try and pull AIDS into the context of everything else we talk about.

This approach harbors a political point about AIDS, too. The public history of AIDS in the last two decades has been a refusal to talk, an unwillingness to make connections. AIDS has been the Other, a disease affecting Them. And when They died, well, their voices went silent and something went missing. So We fall silent too, for a moment to commemorate Them, but when the conversation resumes, Their voices are gone from it and if the conversation is otherwise unchanged, then we have truly lost and AIDS has won. Awareness isn't just about commemoration. It's about medical research. It's about people continuing to live their lives HIV+. It's about Third World public health crises that transcend AIDS itself. It's about speaking to misinformation and fear. It's about the living, continuing, conversation, about learning what can and cannot be done and at what cost.

Silence is a powerful symbol. But I think its greatest symbolic power is to remind us of the necessity of speech.

Keep talking. Speak to me. Speak my language.