The Laboratorium
January 2001

This is an archive page. What you are looking at was posted sometime between 2000 and 2014. For more recent material, see the main blog at

What I’ve Learned Lately

If you make a parking deck sufficiently large and cavernous, bats will take up residence in it.

Also, did you know that you can fax checks?

Me and My Posse

The word "posse" is a shortened form of the Latinate legal phrase posse comitatus. The "posse" half is a contracted form of potis esse, an adjective-infinitive pair meaning "to be able." In Latin, it stood on its own as the present infinitive form of the irregular verb possum, posse, potui ("I am able, to be able, I have been able"), from which we also derive "possible" and "potent" (by way of the present participle potens). The "comitatus" half is the perfect participle of the verb comito, comitare, comitavi, comitatus ("I accompany, to accompany, I have accompanied, having been accompanied"). Both these senses -- power and joining together -- are present in the definition technical definition of the term given by Black's Law Dictionary (following Blackstone) as "The power or force of the country. The entire population of a country above the age of fifteen, which a sheriff may summon to his assistance in certain cases; as to aid him in keeping the peace, in pursuing and arresting felons, etc."

That is, a "posse" might be reasonably understood as a non-military militia, a group of civilians to be called out by law enforcement in times of need. In 1878, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act, the relevant portion of which read:

From and after the passage of this act it shall not be lawful to employ any part of the Army of the United States, as a posse comitatus, or otherwise, for the purpose of executing the laws, except in such cases and under such circumstances as such employment of said force may be expressly authorized by the Constitution or by act of Congress; and no money appropriated by this act shall be used to pay any of the expenses incurred in the employment of any troops in violation of this section And any person willfully violating the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction thereof shall be punished by fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars or imprisonment not exceeding two years or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Historically, the Act was part of the dismantling of Reconstruction. The victorious North had used military government in the South to advance Reconstruction, and the whites of the South, eager for a return to the days of legally-enforced racism, was desparate to get the Army out of the law-enforcement business once and for all. The Posse Comitatus Act is best seen as part and parcel of the Democrats' price for letting the Republicans steal the 1876 election.

The act has been variously amended, and the relevant portion now reads

Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

Leaving aside the oddities that the Navy and Marines appear to be exempt from the Act and that a ten-thousand dollar fine means somewhat less now than it did in 1878, the amendments have preserved the key central language prohibiting using the military "as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws." This phrase is a little odd, for two reasons. The first is that a standing army -- as opposed to the militia -- would appear to be incapable of serving "as a posse comitatus", since the definition of a posse makes it clear that it consists of the "entire population." And second, there's that seemingly redundant "otherwise" clause. Blackstone's definition is non-exclusive; he refers only to "certain cases," and then provides examples. "Pursuing and arresting felons" may be a duty of a posse, but nothing in the definition requires that a posse not carry out other duties for the "assistance" of the sheriff. The "otherwise" clause only makes sense if there are certain duties which consist in "enforcing the laws" but which are either not for "his assistance" or not carried out by "the entire population." The former possibility is absurd (at least unless one wants to argue fine technicalities about delegation of powers within the executive branch), which leaves the latter. But in this case, it is the first clause that's redundant, and the Act should simply prohibit the Army from "enforcing the laws" and drop that pesky "otherwise" and have done with it without needing to even mention a posse comitatus.

My point, in this exegesis, is simply that the Posse Comitatus Act is perhaps not the clearest or most definitively stated section of the U.S. Code. It was part of a thoroughly political compromise between a bunch of out-and-out villains and a bunch of self-interested politicians; its sentiments are questionable and its language uncertain. And it is also one of the militia movement's best-beloved sections of the Code.

One organization inspired by the Act is the Sheriff's Posse Comitatus (investigated by the FBI twice; the relevant files have been released under the Freedom of Information Act). The SPC is a white supremacist organization, proudly displaying the Act on its home page. We are the real posse, is the message: law enforcement and the standing armed forces (along with the IRS and the other usual targets) are illegitimate and have no place. Latching onto the language forbidding the military from assisting federal law enforcement -- shades of Waco -- and laying claim to the mass populism of gatherings of citizens are both standards of freelance militia groups, but there's something about the whole posse comitatus concept that rings strangely here. This is a posse with no sheriff, a posse dedicated, in point of fact, to resisting the sheriff, rather than assisting him. Yes, they mention their "duly-elected Sheriff's," but still, something is askew about the enterprise. It's an odd inversion of a persecution complex: one starts to see allies in the strangest places. Much as with its misappropriation of the anti-slavery Union anthem "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the SPC is on strange ground as it clings to the Posse Comitatus Act, another relic of the Civil War. In the words of Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Mixed Signals

Sources report that Massachusetts has deployed blinking green traffic signals at some intersections. My drivers' education, at least, was entirely silent on the question of what one does at a flashing green. If red means "stop" and flashing red means "stop, and then proceed with caution," does that then make the flashing green a signal to go through the intersection normally, and then proceed with caution? If a yellow means "slow down" and flashing yellow means "slow down even more," does that make a flashing green your command to go faster?

It turns out (courtesy of the ODP and, perhaps unsurpsingly, that there is no uniform agreement on the meaning of a blinking green light. In a bunch of Canadian provinces, it has the same general meaning that a regular green light does, with the added modifier that you are the undisputed master of all you survey. All other traffic entering the intersection has a stop sign or a red light, and must bow down before your awesome cosmic powers. On the other hand, if you're in Massachusetts or British Columbia and you try a no-look Ontario-style left turn on a blinking green, you're liable to get into a smackup, since the blinking green means only that cross traffic is seeing red, with no guarantees about oncoming traffic. One might observe that this makes a blinking green light entirely equivalent to a regular green light. In this, one would be correct, except that the flashing green is usually only triggered by pedestrians, which means the pedestrian who triggered it is probably somewhere nearby, and you really ought to be careful not to wrap your fender around them.

To recap, in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick, the flashing green light is your license to be more than usually reckless, but in Massachusetts and British Columbia, it means you should be more than usually careful. The usability gurus would have a field day, I'm sure. Messing with the traffic signals is a sure sign of a society in turmoil: during the Cultural Revolution, a Red Guards contingent observed that the Beijing traffic lights were reactionary, since glorious revolutionary red meant "stop." The proposal got as far as Zhou Enlai's desk before being tabled.

Sources, of course, being Rebecca and Dean, who are moving back there. Fie. 28'01'01

Funny Money

One finds the following "deal" described in Nicholas Dunbar's Inventing Money. The year is 1997; the page is 171.

Long-Term Capital Management, before the 1999 meltdown that destroyed it and occasioned Dunbar's book, enjoyed a phenomenal run. It reported gains of over 40% its first two years in existence. Together with the enormous influx of investors encouraged by such high rates of return, these gains pushed LTCM's invested capital up into the multiple billions, leading it to close its fund to new investors. Since LTCM charged especially high fees to its investors, its own returns were even more phenomenal. The value of its partner-owners' stake more than doubled in that two-year period. So, on the one hand, outside investors were clamoring to put money in, and on the other, LTCM's partners were looking for ways to get money out without paying huge tax bills.

LTCM recruited the Union Bank of Switzerland -- still smarting from its decision not to invest in LTCM two years prior and now frantically looking for a piece of the action -- to take part in one of the crazed option-swap schemes by which LTCM made its money. In essence, LTCM wanted to change its money from "income" into an "investment." Since investment is uncertain and capital flow makes the wheels of capitalism spin and investors should be encouraged to put their capital to productive use and blah blah blah blah blah, the United States taxes capital gains (profits from risk-bearing investments, such as stocks) at a lower rate than income (money made from predictable, "risk-free" activities, like laboring by the sweat of your brow or making a loan). Thus, LTCM asked UBS to help it launder some money. It was a classic "please hold onto my money long enough to fool the Feds" trick with some serious plot twists. Here's what they did:

UBS issued an $800 million option on LTCM (equal to about an eighth of LTCM's total value). If, at the end of seven years, LTCM's value had risen, then the option could be exercised to buy a share in LTCM at the older, cheaper, price, which could then be sold at the more recent, more expensive price. If LTCM's value had fallen in that time, the option would be worthless.

So far, so good. Except that UBS sold this option back to LTCM. And simultaneously bought an $800 million stake in LTCM to cover the option. Any increase in LTCM's value would affect the stake and the option equally, so that UBS's position in LTCM was neither positive nor negative. Whatever it gained on the stake it would pay out on the option. Bingo. Squeaky-clean money.

The astute observer may well point out that the above deal leaves UBS well and solidly fucked if LTCM's value declines. Options being voluntary things, options after all, LTCM could just refuse to exercise the option and walk away from the deal, leaving UBS holding a share worth less than the $800 million UBS had paid for it. To cover this eventuality, UBS' could, at its option, convert the stake into a floating-rate loan on normal investment-bank terms. That is, UBS' stake in LTCM was something approaching a pure accounting fiction, since it was either a hedge against having to pay out on the option or a regular old loan. From LTCM's perspective, the stake-option swap converted any future profit into low-tax capital gains, but wiped out the "risk" involved with any real investment.

The icing on the cake is that UBS turned around and invested over 90% of the payment it got for issuing the option directly in LTCM. Which is to say, LTCM's performance was tracked by an option issued by UBS, and that option was held by LTCM, for which it gave $300 million to UBS, which then invested most of that sum in LTCM. That a fair portion portion of LTCM's hedge fund deals flowed through UBS is incidental. One can see in such machinations, if one so chooses, the workings of a rational market on a search-and-destroy mission to eliminate inefficiency, in this case a difference in tax rates.

One might also see the financial markets as institutions for large-scale gambling (certainly, the existence for markets in weather futures does nothing to discourage such thoughts). Ordinary, old-fashioned gamblers, like ordinary, old-fashioned investors, make simple bets: tech stocks will rise, interest rates will fall, Bill's Bunion to place in the 3rd, the Ravens by six. And the arbitrageurs, those connoisseurs of liquidity and volatility, are the bookies: the middlemen who eliminate stupidity by preying on it, who take a small cut of the huge sums that pass through their hands and keep the whole market going. Bookies don't take risks; they run their spreadsheets and set the spread to keep bets on the favorite equal to bets on the underdog.

Which would all be well and good, except that bookies are gamblers, too. They don't so much reduce their risk as push it around, concentrate it into tiny singularities that can be conveniently swept under a corner of the carpet. They never lose money, and when they do, they lose astronomical sums. That's what happens when you move the line on the big game and the margin of victory falls between the old line and the new: you're paying out to both sides. That's what happens when you buy calls and puts on margin and the stock doesn't move even a hair. That's what happens when your martingale burns through your cash reserve and the casino bouncers stop only to remove the cocktail glass from your hand before throwing you out on the street.

And that, in the end, is what happened to LTCM and UBS. While the nation was busy with a sex scandal, Russia defaulted on some loans in a particularly brutal way, herd mentalities on Wall Street magnified small losses, other firms crowded around like sharks tasting the blood of one of their own, and that was all she wrote for LTCM. When LTCM bit the dust, the stake-turned-load UBS held went pennies-on-the-dollar too, and everyone involved was in a world of hurt. The Swiss bankers lost six-sevenths of the money they poured into the LTCM deal. The mere possibility that LTCM might cease to exist was the eventuality no one factored into the "risk-free" option swap.

Five billion dollars in capital made the odds on something like that happening pretty long, but not long enough for the meltdown not to happen. It's not an encouraging thought. The markets are supposed to be wellsprings of rationality, capable of compensating for the human inability to deal with large numbers and small probabilities. And it turns out that it's not so much that they don't get burned as that they get burned much less often and far far worse than the rest of us. Which is why I have some pretty serious concerns with letting these exemplary capitalists get away with the kind of tax shenanigans UBS and LTCM pulled.

Round the Decay

Michael pointed me to The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit. I haven't seen such a striking combination of the art and the politics of decay since David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries. Lowell Boileau, the site's creator, combines wonderfully beautiful photographs of collapsing buildings with social commentary.

The result, curiously enough, is an odd vindication of hypertext: as you click around through the site willy-nilly, Detroit's troubled history starts to take shape. History is the interweaving of local narratives, perhaps, and Boileau's architectural approach assembles the story of Detroit and its inhabitants through the evidence of its lived landscape, the spaces they have constructed, abandoned, destroyed, and rebuilt.

A few gems from the collection:

  • The Michigan Theater, now a parking garage. The developers, looking to build on the cheap by reusing the abandoned structure, left the ornate celings and balcony intact. Even more incredibly, the Theater itself stands on the site where Henry Ford created his first car, so that its paved interior represents a particularly grotesque form of revenge.
  • The Book Tower, a 36-story skyscraper built in 1913, now more valuable as a site for communications dishes than as office space.
  • The Heidelberg Project. We needed to destroy the village in order to save it . . .
  • The Lost Synagogues, in which the demographic transformations of Detroit are inscribed.
  • An inexplicable concrete mushroom.

Building Bridges

The Bridges International Repertory Theatre is a new theatre company here in Seattle, dedicated to promoting cross-cultural interaction through drama and discussion. I saw their inaugural production, David Hare's A Map of the World (playing at the Richard Hugo House through the 4th of February, and definitely worth seeing).

The set design was brilliant. Working in a 30' by 60' space presents some tricky constraints: having the set extend back the entire depth was a bold move, and it works: with a space oriented front-to-back, you get to witness some extraordinarily clever blocking.

Land of 1000 Climates

Seattle is micro-climate country. This is perhaps to be expected, when the city is situated within sixty miles of a rain forest, and also within sixty miles of good downhill skiing, with the Pacific Ocean in between. We've been having some fairly intense fog in the last week, but it's been stunningly localized fog. Clear when I leave the apartment in the morning, pea soup at Lake Washington, beautiful and sunny on the far shore. The weather downtown is often quite distinct from the weather in Eastlake over the ridge, which is itself entirely unlike the weather across the water in Bellevue, which may or may not resemble the weather further to the west as you climb towards the mountains.

There are some rules of thumb: waves on the north side of the 520 bridge mean winds blowing cold and clear down from Alaska (the bane of fans in the upper decks of Safeco Field), whereas waves on the south side mean we've got some of that warm and wet California weather on the way. And when the weather gets to town, you're likely to be able to observe its quite visible progress as it swirls around the glacial ridges. I once had the amazing good fortune to be high up in the Columbia Tower at the exact hour a storm rolled into town off the Sound. The progress of the rain over Magnolia, the Seattle Center, and Belltown was clearly visible, and then, in a few dramatic seconds, the leadline of the rain swept along the Tower. there were a few incredible moments when the southern windows along one wall were bone-dry but the water was rolling down the northern ones in sheets.

Not a day goes by, not a day, I tell you, when this city doesn't spring something like that on me. There are just so many moments of pure environmental beauty here, it's a little out of control.

About the writing thing, yesterday was Crouching Tiger, and today was A Map of the World. Thursday is going to be tango tapas, and Friday may well be the Squirrels. Which leaves tomorrow, but that might be Ikea, or the World's Best Office Chair. Don't be holding your breath. 23'01'01

Famous Names

Back this summer, when Judge Marilyn Patel of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued the infamous injunction that threatened to close Napster for a few days, I though the name seemed a bit familiar. As well it should have: Patel also issued the 1997 ruling (in Bernstein vs. United States Department of State) voiding the export rules on strong cryptography. That is to say, whether or not Patel was right or wrong in the Napster case, her paper trail shows that's she's no doody-head in matters technical. She can and has recognized the expressive content of code; she can and has ruled against trying to legislate the impossible. All of which, I must say, does not bode well for Napster: when it comes to undermining her own rulings, Judge Patel is no Judge Jackson. When a known friend of the little guy sides against you, the pressroom argument that the ruling is part of the clueless Old System in operation loses some of its force.

How big a friend of the little guy is she? Well, put it this way. Back in 1983, Patel overturned Fred Korematsu's 1942 felony conviction for defying the relocation order sending Japanese-Americans into internment camps. When the case reached Patel, the government was in agreement with Korematsu's lawyers that the conviction should be set aside and the case declared moot, given that the relocation laws had been repealed. Patel would have none of it, and she used the case before her to look into the relocation laws themselves. Through hearings and an examination of the evidentiary record, she made publicly clear that no military necessity justified the relocation, that the military officials responsible for the relocation knew it to be unnecessary, and that they concealed this knowledge from the Supreme Court at the time of Korematsu's original appeal in 1944. Patel's ruling was a key step in the process that ultimately led to reparations for the surviving internees.

(Much of this information was taken from Martha Minow's Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, a thought-provoker of a book if ever there was one).

The Lab writes when the Lab has something to say, and not otherwise. The priorities have been strange recently, perhaps, but I believe there has been some method to the madness. Some. 21'01'01

Paris Metro Pricing

For a substantial part of its history, the Paris Metro system used a novel pricing scheme. A first-class ticket cost twice as much as a second-class ticket, but entitled you to sit in the first-class car. And what made the first-class car sufficiently luxurious that you'd pay double to ride in it? The big number "1" painted on the side, and nothing more. The first-class cars and second-class cars were identical in every important respect, save only that only holders of first-class tickets were allowed to ride in the first-class cars.

This statement is not as vacuous as it may seem. Consider the experience from a rider's point of view. Those with no particular preference rode second-class and saved their centimes. Those seeking a quieter, less crowded ride paid the extra fare and rode first-class. The system was self-regulating, in that as crowding in second-class increased, the temptation to take the expensive seats also increased, thereby relieving some of the pressure on the second-class cars. Economically, we're accustomed to thinking of product differentiation as a cause and price differentiation as an effect. Under the right circumstances, though, the relationship takes on more of a chicken-and-egg quality: the Paris Metro system managed to automagically transmute a price differential into a quality differential.

The computer scientist Andrew Odlyzko, noticing this fact, came up with the most elegant quality-of-service proposal I've seen. Trying to build differentiated services and preferential treatment into routers and protocols is a technical and logistical quagmire whose uncertain traversal has driven to the brink of madness many of the best minds in computer networks. Instead, Odlyzko proposes simply to build parallel Internets, ranging from "cheapass" to "Rolls-Royce" distinguished only in their usage costs. It's a beautiful idea: we already know how to build one Internet, so in some sense, it would be much simpler to build serveral Internets than to increase the complexity of the routing algorithms in the one we've already got.

Of course, the idea is completely and utterly unworkable as a serious proposal for the Internet. Its chief merit consists, I think, in revealing, by way of comparison, how far beyond utterly unworkable other quality-of-service schems are. That is to say, present quality guarantees always exist at the sufferance of the the Internet as a whole. We're relying on general excess capacity and the laws of probability to see us through, and if you need something more reliable than the Internet can provide you, you may need to roll your own. Enterprise Rent-a-Car, for example, uses its own satellite network to keep its locations connected to the central computer systems. Other than not being at the mercy of Star Wars Episode I trailer-induced bottlenecks, Enterprise also enjoys a certain (partial) immunity to script kiddies as a consequence.

I've gotten started on this train of thought because of the recent sense of crisis among many free and formerly-free online services (and also many former online services, to be precise). The problem of finding a revenue model that can bring in enough money merely to pay the marginal costs of the service has plagued all sorts of enterprises. Many have had to embark on crash programs to find features they can cram into a "pay" version that will somehow be able to keep the whole's head above water. The Paris Metro Pricing scheme may not be strictly applicable, but I think its basic insight is worth keeping in mind: the very act of differential pricing, if properly applied, can provide just as effective a filter on customer behavior as any "genuine" difference in the relative quality of your products.

The infamous Blogger Server Fund wasn't just about community spirit, and it wasn't just about the servers themselves. Think of it this way: Blogger positioned itself, quite publicly, as a service associated with voluntary donations. No compulsion, sure, but their splash page made certain to let you know about the server fund. Mmmm, low-level guilt trip. The result: regular Blogger is now, very slightly, a "premuim" service. Much less so than No-Branding Blogger, sure, but still with certain stability guarantees that always-and-forever absolutely free sites don't provide. Yes, you could attribute that stability entirely to the server fund itself, but I think that attribution would be wrong. "Cheaper" alternatives hit their capacity and collapse under the load -- both network and psychic -- of users making the sorts of demands on the system users tend to make. Blogger probably drove some people away, if the loud moral indignation is any indication, but my point is that, in some sense, Blogger made the choice that it didn't really want those users, who were unwilling to accept a little bit of a feeling of responsibility along with their blogging privileges. It's Paris Metro Pricing in action: from many users' perspective, there really is no significant difference between Blogger and its competitors, and yet the system starts shaking them out, some here and some there, and everyone feels that they've come out ahead of those poor suckers who bought the other kind of ticket.

No, this is NOT an article about the Blogger Server Fund. That's a separate question, and someday maybe I'll even write about it. 18'01'01

Seat Number CL101 19 10

Television is dead, and video games are here to stay. This is what I learned at the game tonight. Watching the game on the court below and on the Jumbotron above, you see how much the screen lies. The court is always open, retreating and regrouping is always an option, and teams will gleefully go around the horn if you give them the chance. Video games recognize this truth: as long as they have existed, they have emphasized the distances, the passing, the unexpected thrill of the drive to the basket when the space opens up. And sportscasts have fought this reality: they zoom too far in, focus too closely on the ball, fill the screen with a tangle of limbs. Television's field of view cuts too narrow an arc, but when you can take in the whole of the court in a glance, you can see things.

Me, I saw Patrick Ewing. He resembles nothing quite so much as the Colossus of Rhodes: he's huge, ancient, and a shattered ruin of his former self. You want to avert your eyes every time he lumbers down the court, every time players six inches and sixteen years his junior bully him around. His game is a painful lesson in humility; with his size, he's never needs to do more than stick his arms out and he's open, but he can't drive and he can't dunk, and it shows in his eyes and in his posture. Patrick Ewing is a beaten man, and when they sub him out five minutes into the half, it has the feel of a mercy killing. From dust were ye born, and to dust shall ye return.

In honor of Chase, who's back on his game. For anything further, go look it up. 17'01'01

Creative Use of Letterboard

Those days when I get off the highway at Roanoke, I drive by the Roanoke Tavern, which consistently makes excellent use of the sign out front. Past highlights have included "METS YANKS WHO CARES?" but today, it read "WE MAY HAVE GINGER."

Hello, Smithers, You’re Quite Good at Turning Me On

Version 1:

Why should we expect the legal system to be eager to adopt the results of scientific studies in its procedures? This is the same legal system, after all, that has proven incapable of any coherent position on the admissibility and meaning of DNA testing and other scientific evidence. Even the most rock-solid scientific evidence can be effectively contested in a courtroom, and any police department that modifies its long-standing procedures is asking for trouble from sharp defense attorneys.

The reality is that the intellectual principles behind the law -- deference to precedent, syllogistic reasoning, prizing human testimony over physical evidence -- are fundamentally hostile to the kind of information science provides. In order for scientific experimentation to transform the justice system, the justice system will need first to understand what science can and cannot do, a shift that would be far more subtle and far-reaching than merely tinkering with the size of a jury or the format of a lineup. Until then, these "simple" changes will be doomed to failure.

Version 2:

Why should Gawande expect the legal system to be eager to adopt the results of scientific studies? This is the same system, after all, that has proved incapable of any coherent position on the admissibility and meaning of DNA and other scientific evidence. A good lawyer can effectively contest even the most rock-solid scientific proofs, and any police department that experimented with procedures in the way Gawande suggests would be inviting challenges from defense attorneys. In order for the justice system to be transformed by science, it would first need to recognize how its own intellectual principles -- deference to form and precedent, syllogistic reasoning, the prizing of human testimony -- can be hostile to the truth.

Version 3:

Why should Atul Gawande expect the legal system to be eager to adopt new, scientifically tested methods? This is a system, after all, that has proved incapable of a clear position on the admissability and meaning of DNA. A good lawyer can effectively contest even rock-solid scientific evidence, and any police department that experimented with its procedures woud be inviting challenges from defense attorneys. For the justice system to be transformed by science, it first needs to recognize how its own intellectual principles -- deference to form and precedent, syllogistic reasoning, the value placed on witness testimony -- can be hostile to the truth.

(The New Yorker, 22 January 2001, "The Mail") 15'01'01

Discussion Question

What are the ethical obligations of artists in their art? I have seen the following theories advanced:

  • To provide entertainment and happiness to other people.
  • To disturb other people and shake them out of complacency.
  • To describe accurately the real world.
  • To prove, by example, certain claims about abstract concepts.
  • To do things that have never been done before.
  • To provide useful and uplifting instruction to other people.
  • To be absolutely independent from any authority.
  • To create wealth by creating objects that will be valued by other people.
  • To further the work of other artists.
  • To express their inner selves.
  • To glorify God.
  • None of the above. Art is useless and intrinsically unethical.

These can't all be the case, can they?

Moral Rights

If you're in the habit of reading books imported from the UK, you may have noticed that their copyright pages bear the enigmatic and seemingly obvious claim that (mutatis mutandis) "[t]he right of Lawrence Norfolk to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs, and Patents act of 1988." In point of fact, this claim is not a copyright claim at all, but rather a statement of the moral rights of the author. Lawrence Norfolk, under British law, has the the right to be identified as the author of In the Shape of a Boar. If you try to pass it off as your own creation, or to alter its text in a way he disapproves of, he can sue you.

This sounds a great deal like a subset of copyright, but there's a key distinction. Copyrights are property rights: you can buy, sell, assign, barter, hoard, or waive them. The moral right of the author is considered to be -- according to the Berne convention -- an inalienable human right. This is the same serious meaning of "inalienable" the Declaration of Independence uses: not only can't these rights be forcibly stripped from you, you can't even give them away. You can't sell yourself into slavery; and neither can you (in Britain) give the right to be called the author of your writings to someone else.

The U.S. doesn't recognize these moral rights: it considers the copyright system sufficient. This has led to some interesting international lawsuits. In the late 1940s, Fox put out an anti-Soviet movie and decided to score it with public domain music by Shostakovich. Shostakovich was horrified -- especially so, given the persecution he endured for the purportedly anti-Soviet messages in his music -- and sued (along with Prokofiev and another composer). The U.S. court threw their case out on its ear. A French court, however, sided with them, and thus the film was barred from distribution in France. The French take moral rights seriously: they've also barred an all-female production of Waiting For Godot and a colorized version of Asphalt Jungle.

Closer to home, it's interesting to speculate on the differences stronger recognition of moral rights might mean for ther various hot-button intellectual-property cases in this country. They sound great, no? No more classifiying of records as "works for hire," strong protections against corporate exploitation, better rights for independent writers. If one considers software as a form of expression -- as many people do, including me more days than not -- one can certainly see the Open Source upside. But there are scary downsides, too: that protection against alteration has some scary land mines hidden within it. I'd say there's pretty much no arguing with shrink-wrap licenses if you take moral rights at full value. I don't want my software associated with your "degrading misuse" of it, fine, then, the courts may very well back me up, based precisely on the expressive content of my code. The same goes for media distribution. Why even bother to put encryption on DVDs is the creators' moral rights extend to having their works "performed" or "published" only as they intended?

These are messy issues, and moral rights certainly don't provide easy answers. What they do provide, I think, is perspective. The world doesn't always work the same way as the U.S.: they have different guiding principles in places, and calling out some of the differences can be a way of challenging assumptions. We've got options, more options than we usually realize.

This is Where We Crack Wise

So the Army is changing its slogan to "An Army of One." I guess they're finally taking this downsized military thing seriously.

Thank you, thank you. You've been a great audience.

stupid mefi people never even look in the right place 10'01'01

Hollywood has Nothing on the Ancients

From The History of Herodotus (book IX), in the translation given by Lawrence Norfolk in In the Shape of a Boar, footnote 103, page 29:

[Although Hegesistratus was] made fast in iron stocks, he got an iron weapon which was brought by some means into his prison, and straightway conceived a plan of such courage as we have never known; reckoning how best the rest of it might get free, he cut off his own foot at the instep. This done, he tunneled through the wall out of the way of the guards who kept watch over him, and so escaped to Tegea. All night he journeyed, and all day he hid and lay concealed in the woods, till on the third night he came to Tegea, while all the people of Lacedaemon sought him.

Ahead of Schedule

Well, they're not exactly volume five, but two new Harry Potter books are coming to a bookstore near you on March 12.

Well Known, Perhaps, but New to Me

From "The Marvels of Walter Benjamin," by J.M. Coetzee in the 11 January issue of The New York Review of Books (Volume XLVIII, Number 1, pages 28-33):

The story is by now so well know that it barely needs to be retold. The setting is the Franco-Spanish border, the time is 1940. Walter Benjamin, fleeing occupied France, presents himself to the wife of a certain Fittko he has met in an internment camp. He understands, he says, that Frau Fittko will be able to guide him and his companions across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. Frau Fittko takes him along on a trip to scout out the best routes; he brings along a heavy briefcase. Is the briefcase really necessary, she asks? It contains a manuscript, he replies. "I cannot risk losing it. It...must be saved. It is more important than I am."

The next day they cross the mountains, Benjamin pausing every few minutes because of a weak heart. At the border they are halted. Their papers are not in order, say the Spanish police; they must return to France. In despair, Benjamin takes an overdose of morphine. The police make an inventory of the deceased's belongings. The inventory shows no record of a manuscript.

And a Talking Pig Shall Lead Them

I found the following work of truly profound idiocy through Jason didn't actually offer an opinion on the essay, which lets him off the hook. I will not be so kind to the author, Dave Weinberger, who presumably believes in what he wrote.

The central claim of The Hyperlinked Metaphysics of the Web is that the Internet is ushering in a new metaphysics for our society, a shift away from "container" metaphysics (bad) towards a "hyperlinked" metaphysics (good), with profound changes in our notions of time, space, and morality. And, in the end, we're going to all be spiritual superbeings, filled with hope, joy, and empathy.

My brief description cannot do proper justice to the pure hogwash contained in this essay. I've posted to the essay's discussion board a critique of the essay's ignorance of philosophy and of the gargantuan straw man it sets up in order to rail against "container metaphysics," but I've barely even scratched the surface of what's wrong with it. The reasoning is slapdash: Weinberger begged the question more times than I could count and made sweeping assertions without the slightest shred of evidence. The central argument is simplistic and essentializing. The historical exceptionalism is appaling. There is next to no understanding of how people use the Web in his claims about how people use the Web. The conclusion is a veritable avalanche of incoherent mock-prophetic babbling about the Web and spirituality.

I am not going to get any further into specifics. I do not have time for this childish madness. None of us do. The Web represents some genuine changes in human interaction, in spatial and temporal organization of information, in certain aspects of how we look at the world. It opens up new possibilities, new opportunities. These effects are real, and worth paying attention to. And every word wasted on follies like "The Hyperlinked Metaphysics of the Web" is a word that could have gone into unpacking and understanding the world we live in, but instead went into empty self-indulgent yammering.

Anals of Customer Service

My parents got me a Barnes and Noble gift card as a present. Gift cards are a fairly neat idea: they use the credit-card form factor, complete with magnetic stripe. It's easier to carry and redeem these "credit cards" than a traditional hand-written cardstock gift certificate: the card fits in your wallet and there's less confused fumbling with pens and stamps at the register. Of course, companies love these "stored value" cards for all the same reasons they love gift certificates, since they're front-loaded, so that every lost card and unspent dollar is pure profit, not to mention the advertising value of convincing you to carry around their logo in your pocket. This particular card was issued by American Express and presented itself as "good towards anything at Barnes and Noble."

And here my troubles began.

I don't usually shop at Barnes and Noble. On ethical grounds, I try to maintain a policy of buying books only from Amazon or from independent booksellers. You've gotta love the indies, like Bailey/Coy with its high-quality paperback front table and Elliott Bay, whose reading series is second to none. And Amazon? They were first to really get the e-commerce model, and in many ways, no one else has gotten it so well. I've got friends who work there. Their web site is a wonder of good design and helpful features. And they pride themselves on customer service.

Remember well that last point.

With this gift card, though, I went shopping today at I was pretty happy with the results: some discounted recent publications and some obscurer items I was having trouble finding in stores. Plus, once I added in shipping, I hit the gift card total to within a dollar, which made me happy. I clicked through the iffily-designed checkout screens, reached the payment screen, and punched in my gift card number.

Bring on the hurt.

Hmm. Maybe that wasn't it. It's a credit card, no? In the store, they'd scan it with the American Express reader, so maybe I should type in the number as an AmEx number. No expiration date, but maybe they don't check the date for stored value cards. That didn't work, either. Following the advice on the screen, I tried substituting 'O's for '0's. Then I tried typing in the number with no spaces. No spaces and 'O's for '0's. Nada. Maybe the card was a "coupon"and not a "gift certificate" and I needed to click back several screens and type it into the "coupon" field. Except that the coupon field had space for six digits, and my card had a fifteen digit number.

I bet you can guess what happened when I tried the first six digits of that number.

I called up the toll-free number on the card. Punching through to a balance inquiry revealed that the card definitely had its full value available. Note, please, that the card number alone sufficed for Barnes and Noble to verify the stored value I keypadded my way back to the main menu and over to the "speak to a real live human being" option. The real live human being said that a "gift card," which I had, wasn't the same as a "gift certificate," which is what the web site accepted. He suggested I call the toll-free number for and check with them about redeeming my gift card.

I was only following orders.

The woman at the second 1-800 number explained to me that cards and certificates were not freely interconvertible. Perhaps I could redeem my gift card and use it to purchase a gift certificate? No dice, even with human intervention. The computers will not recognize a gift card. She went off to check with a supervisor and came back with another possibility: I could mail the card to Secaucus, New Jersey, to the attention of "Lynn," and include my email address and other identifying information, and the accounting department could perform the exchange. In order to use the web site, I'd need to physically mail the card.

I don't make the rules; why should I be expected to understand them?

It was early, yet, so I drove over to the nearest Barnes and Noble store. The person in front of me in line turned out to be my manager from work, also having gift card troubles. In his case, trying to use two gift cards as part of the same purchase verged on the impossible, so the clerk was already a little punchy when I got to the front of the line. I motored through my explanations, and he cut me off, shaking his head sadly. The stores and the web site are two separate operations, with different computer systems, different sets of balance books, different policies, different gift systems.

At that instant, I understood why some e-commerce companies used to brag about their lack of history.

By this point, I was prepared for the bureaucratic jungle, so I started offering him all sorts of possibilities. Could I buy the books from the store? No, since the store didn't stock most of them. Could I order the books through him? Not at the online prices, thanks to the corporate severing. Could he give me a refund on my gift card? Not without a receipt (damn gifts). Could he sell me a gift certificate? No, since he had no access to the computer systems? Could he use his card scanner to authenticate me to the online people? No, it only works as a credit-card reader: charge this purchase to that card.

Now all you have to do is hold the chicken salad.

We basically confirmed that Barnes and Noble has all of the downside of being a large chain with none of the upside: the individually-run stores have to knuckle under to their corporate parent's marketing, stocking, and pricing policies, but benefit from none of the organizational accountability that's supposed to come with being part of a large institution. There was no "further up the chain" for him to refer me to, no way for him to fix my problem without making it his personal problem, rather than his company's problem. This having been established, his boss pointedly reminded him of the "customers," among whom, in her eyes, I did not number.

Every tub on its own bottom.

I drove home and plotted strategy. When I got back, I rang up the second number -- the people -- and told the fellow who answered that he ought to put me on the line with a supervisor, since it was going to get complicated. He asked me to explain the situation, which I did, step by step, after which he burbled for a moment, and then asked me to hold. On came the supervisor. It was simple, I explained. I understood that their computer systems might be incompatible. But systems have interfaces, and I had a problem, and customer service is in the business of fixing problems. If he could get on the line with a counterpart over at the B&N/AmEx gift card program over in the bricks-and-mortar half of the company, I'm sure this could all be worked out.

There's no need to get snippy about it.

I got the same explanation I'd gotten from the first person on that line, repeated over and over again. Separate companies. Working to integrate systems. Not ready yet. Accounting department would need to handle it. To which I explained that this was not a systems problem, it was a customer service problem -- and there was nothing in my situation that should fall outside the realm of what a good customer service organization could handle. The gift-card person could verify that my card was legit -- in fact, I'd already proven that a gift-card computer could do that much -- and then cancel it. Customer service needs to cancel cards all the time, after all, in cases of theft. Then, the representative could issue to me a gift certificate in the same amount. What would happen if my order were lost in transit? Any meaningful customer service organization needs to have the authority to make reasonable unilateral restitutions to customers when the company's interests in having satisfied customers are at stake. This particular instance was even more justifiable, since the debit was being matched by an equal credit over in the bricks-and-mortar end of the company. Customer wins, company-as-a-whole wins, where's the problem? Or is there no one in your whole customer service organization with the authority to credit me, in which case, why should I ever trust your customer service to guarantee any other transactions with your company?

Did you order the code red?

This is when I got transferred to my second supervisor, who went back to the original suggestion, that I mail the card to Lynn in New Jersey, and wanted to know why I was dissatisfied with this option? After all, their company policy was that cards and certificates were not interchangeable, and the mail-in option was a special exception created for those without access to a retail store, an exception being generously offered to me even though I didn't technically qualify. Well, I said, leaving aside the false advertising issue, if I was going to mail my card cross-country, I might as well mail it back to my parents so they could get a refund, and then I could go and buy my books at Amazon and have them mail me a check. All of which would get me my books sooner, and with less hassle, than waiting for Barnes and Noble corporate accounting to take some unknown quantity of time to to figure out which internal cost center to charge in issuing me my gift certificate. Which would cost Barnes and Noble not only my future business, but also all of the past business represented the gift card.

It's not my fault your company couldn't get a clue during the clue mating season in a field full of horny clues if it smeared itself with clue musk and did the clue mating dance.

She thought for a while, and then pointed out that there were some Barnes and Noble locations that had online kiosks, at which one could place web site orders. And those kiosks might just take gift cards. Could I go to the nearest kisok-enabled retail store and place my order there? Sure, I said. Where is the nearest such store to me? I'm in Seattle. She went off for a bit and came back with an answer: Elizabeth, New Jersey.

I think Douglas Adams wrote a game about this once.

This was the point at which human ingenuity reared its ugly head. She had the idea of calling up the New Jersey store and having someone in the store place the order for me at the kiosk. I dictated to her the list of books, supplied mailing address and gift card number, and she promised to have them call me tomorrow to let me know if it'll work. Just to repeat, I dictated my order to one person, who will then dictate it to someone else who will physically type it in at a kiosk. Also to repeat, I had to go through seven customer service representatives in order to find one who was willing to actually look for a solution rather than quoting policy at me.

It's pretty clear that the people at Barnes and Noble, no matter how good their intentions, are pretty seriously hamstrung by moronic institutional structure. That computer systems and accounting policies trump customer service. And B&N doesn't get e-commerce, on a fairly fundamental level.

I may yet get my books. But I'm definitely not going back to Barnes and Noble.

Aztecs, Clendinnen Database Nation, Garfinkel Local Code, Sorkin Lost Pages, Filippo The Last Samurai, DeWitt The Next Deal, Cherney The Writings on an Ethical Life, Singer Widescreen Cinema, Belton Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, Minow Inventing Money, Dunbar

Usually, one has a book already and reads between its lines, rather than the other way around. Perhaps there is some value in the old paradigms. 04'01'01

First Time as Farce, Second Time as Tragedy

Boeing, TRW, and Lockheed-Martin are prototyping an airborne laser by combining a 747, a high-energy iodine laser, and a rotating optical tracking system. Which raises the question: haven't we been here before, and wasn't the airborne laser in Real Genius a pure symbol of unambiguous military evil? On the theory that repetition is indeed tragic, I'm trying some new directions, which means, in all likelihood, less Lab-a-riffic content. Hopefully, my words are going to start popping up in some new contexts. Of course, you still ought to keep looking for them in the usual places . . . 03'01'01

Disturbing Times Two, At Least

Going through my inbox, I noticed that I'd posted myself an email reminding me about this collection of illustrations of famous scenes done in the style of screenshots from The Sims. My first thought was "this would have been better if he'd stuck more closely to the game's style." Then I noticed what the pictures were of, and I realized that I'd never be able to play The Sims. The implicit representational biases in its world-view are just a little too much to handle once you've seen the Columbine shootings or Martin Luther King's assasination done in its graphic style.

Then I noticed the scenes from Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, casually shuffled in with Reginald Denny. Another upsetting miracle of isometric perspective, perhaps: once the violence has started to look cartoonish, what would have been merely cartoonish acquires an unsavoury undercurrent of menace.

For a real mind-bender, though, go thumb through the pictures of events we know from famous photos: Ruby gunning down Oswald, Trang Bang, and Elian in the closet, and ask yourself the following question: where, in these isometric pictures, are the photographers who took the original photos that made the scenes famous?