The Laboratorium
September 2003

King George


The Democrats can win in 2004, and I know how.

King George.

King George wants an empire. King George is impoverishing the people. King George doesn't believe in liberties. King George is a tyrant. King George is insane.

"King George" takes the entire bill of goods against George W. Bush and wraps it up into one stinging two-word phrase. The symbolism is perfect, and perfectly dramatic. Imagine protesters at Bush's speeches, dressed up in colonial garb with tricorn hats, carrying the original American flag with thirteen stars, and shouting phrases from the Declaration of Independence. The TV cameras will eat it up. All you have to do is stay on message.

King George.

King George.

King George.

Tainted Hits


According to my referrer logs, I'm now getting a couple of hits a day from Sitefinder. ("flabratorium.net" can bring you here, as can "laboratoried.com")

I feel unclean.

Copyright, Noun


*copyright*, _noun_ The notion that you can protect from the future what you stole from the past.

-- Greg Knauss

The Rhetorical Suicide Pact


"The Constitution is not a suicide pact."

We've been hearing this one a lot, lately.

(The "suicide pact" metaphor is from a 1949 dissent by Justice Jackson, but he was talking about the Bill of Rights, in the future tense, in a conditional clause. Justice Goldberg, in 1963, put the sentence substantially in its modern form in his majority opinion in Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez.)

The thing is, it's a damnably ambiguous statement. You can read it forwards, as saying that the Constitution is a wise document, one that promotes both liberty and security, and therefore adherence to the Constitution will never create a risk of suicide. Or you can read it backwards, as saying that to cling blindly to the Constitution's literal statements in times of grave emergency would be tantamount to signing a suicide pact, and therefore it must be read as containing an implicit exception clause for use in grave emergencies.

Of course, the implications of these two readings are exactly opposite. Which makes it perfect rhetoric, because it's so manipulable to serve whatever present interest needs serving. No wonder that judges and pundits love it so.

The Ashcroftian meaning is in the ascendency these days; people haul out the quip when proposing new curtailments of civil liberties. Perhaps it's time to stop conceding the meaning and insist that true security requires the constant protection of the liberties enshrined in our Constitutional order. Tossing aside two centuries of accumulated respect for basic freedoms seems like a pretty dumb thing to do, one might say. Perhaps even suicidally dumb.

A World Suddenly Gone Crazy With Cats!


This is why I read my spam:

After more than 20 years, ROAR the movie now comes to your home on DVD and VHS...digitally re-mastered and better than ever..

ROAR is a unique comedy of survival featuring one-hundred fifty of the world's greatest carnivores: lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, cougars and jaguars.

While a father is fighting to preserve his family and his dream, a mother and her three children must struggle to survive in a world suddenly gone crazy with cats!

If the lions he loves kill the family he loves, there will be only one man to blame.

ROAR IS AN UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCE OF LOVE, LAUGHTER AND TRIUMPH AS BREATHTAKING TODAY AS IT WAS WHEN IT WAS FILMED TWENTY YEARS AGO!

Truly a family affair and a labor of love that you and your family will enjoy time and time again.

The movie is real, though the link in the email goes to a different site, one that duplicates the content of the original, down to the pixel. I suspect a man-in-the-middle scam.

Update: two hours later, and I've gotten two more identical copies. They have different "senders," they came via totally different SMTP routes, and they purport to be from different email clients. My new guess is a man-in-the-middle scam with some kind of interesting propagation vector, possibly even a SoBig.F style virus. Anyone else's inbox suddenly gone crazy with cats?

The Potty Problem


In my family law class, we had a long discussion on Tuesday about the social meanings of gender divisions, with specific reference to single-sex toilet facilities. The professor's point was that gender lines still have deep and totemic force and are embedded in our society even in places quite remote from "family" issues.

Which is true, but then there's the experience I had at my summer job, and I have no clue what that experience proves.

Here's the scene: our office is now twice the size it used to be. We moved into the space adjoining our old one and knocked some large doorways in the wall between them. With twice the space and twice the people working there, it made sense to have twice the bathrooms. Since the plumbing was all in one place, the contractors added two to the existing two, back-to-back.

Thus, from each half of the office, there are two readily-accessible bathrooms. Each is its own full room, with a door that locks. Each contains a single, standard, unisex toilet. So, from an a priori point of view, each bathroom could be whatever we decided it ought to be, gender-wise. So, you might expect one male and one female bathroom in each half of the office. Or, in the casual atmosphere of San Francisco, you might expect a catch-as-catch-can first-come-first-served system: everyone uses whatever bathroom is free when they need to use one.

But you, if you're anything like me, probably wouldn't expect the office to have one pair of neutral bathrooms and one pair of gendered bathrooms. But that's exactly what it had. On the side where the table where I worked was, we all went for the closer bathroom if it was free, and the further-away one if not. But on the other side of the office, the bathroom on the left was girly and the bathroom on the right was boyish.

On my first day, one of the attorneys mentioned these customs to me. She was completely offhand about it: this was how people seemed to treat the bathrooms. She had no idea why; there weren't any rules about it. People even made jokes about fluid gender identities on signs on the doors (one door, on the boyish room, had a picture of "a man in a kilt" AND of a "woman in pants" on it). She didn't mention it again. No one did. No one cared.

And yet I never once turned left when choosing a bathroom on the far side of the office. At the same time, many days, I'd wait outside the bathroom on the near side of the office, and then go in immediately after one of the women in the office left.

My sense of things is that people are (or would be) much less comfortable with people in the "wrong" bathroom than they are with bathrooms that simply mix the genders from the get-go. This state of affairs makes perfect sense: a man in the women's room presumptively has some kind of improper motive for being there. But if the bathroom is marked as mixed, then "ordinary" men go in there, and it's no longer necessary to abduce a "deviant" motive for a man's presence.

Draw your own conclusions.

Shutter Moth


I found out this week about another photo I'm in. The law school's annual bulletin has various scenes of law school life in it. Most of them don't change from year to year: there are classroom scense that date from before I arrived and that may well still be in the bulletin long after I'm gone. But they take a new photo of the faculty every spring.

You have to look pretty closely, but once you know to look for a face looking out through one of the windows behind the assembled professors, it's not hard to spot.

That's me.

More from the Mailbag


Claudia, in response to my LOTR-with-Muppets project, suggests that Saruman and Grima Wormtongue be Dr. Honeydew and Beaker. Especially with the scene in which Grima nearly drops a torch into the high explosive, how could I possibly disagree? This change would unemploy Slimey the Worm and Oscar the Grouch, theprevious leading contenders for the roles. Perhaps Smaug (yeah, yeah, that's Hobbit territory, I know) and Denethor, respectively would work better for them.

Ephi observes that "laboratorium" means "laboratory" in both Dutch and Indonesian. Previously, I'd known only that "laboratorium" was a real word in German.

And Mike, going way back into the archives, observes that legacy preferences in college admissions are profoundly regressive. These preferences disproportionately favor the children of the rich, but it's government grant money that keeps universities running. The result is that everyone's tax dollars are going to educate Geoffrey Lowell Cabot III.

Blogs And Boleos


This Saturday, from 2:00 to 4:00, fans of TypePad will be converging on Madison Square Park in New York.

This Saturday, from 1:30 to 5:30, tango dancers will be converging on Madison Square Park in New York.

I expect much hilarity to ensue.

Networking at Work


Apparently, one of my college friends is competing this weekend in the World Championships of Freestyle Wrestling at Madison Square Garden.

None Dare Call It Genius


The Duck Tape people have a new tape out, a tape apparently so new that I can't find it in their catalog.

It's basically a scotch tape -- clear, thin, adhesive on one side -- but it doesn't come in a dispenser. You don't need one. It tears perfectly straight.

But wait, there's more! Once you've torn yourself a convenient piece, you don't need to worry about letting the remainder fall back against the roll. The sides of the tape are serrated, making it easy to start peeling a new piece. And, because the tape only tears crosswise to the roll, you never get into that sad situation where the tape sticks to itself and you get an ugly narrow strip.

Utter genius. But did we expect anything less from the good folks at Duck?

Fourteen Minutes and Twelve Seconds Remaining


I was in the New York Times today. But you have to be in the New York area to see me, because I was only in a photo and that photo only ran in the metro section of the print edition.

Check on the first page, above the fold: I'm the guy in the red who turned away from the camera at just the wrong moment.

To Jupiter, Alice! To Jupiter!


With beautiful timing, the New Yorker is running a beautiful article on the incredible success of the Galileo probe. Launched fifteen years ago with technology that was a decade out of date at the time, Galileo discovered the first extraterrestrial ocean, holds the record for most flybys of planets and moons, pointed out a dual star system, and told us about nine more moons of Jupiter.

Galileo's story is the story of improvisational engineering at its best. When its main 134 KBps antenna failed to open, NASA engineers decided to have it send back images using its puny 10bps antenna. 10 bits per second! 10!

To fit images over that narrow a channel, they needed to teach Galileo some of the tricks we've learned about data compression in the last few decades. And to teach an old satellite new tricks, they needed to upgrade its entire software package. Considering that upgrading your OS rarely goes right here on Earth, pulling off a half-billion-mile remote install is pretty impressive.

(I'm also curious about the security issues. Does NASA use crypto? Could just anyone with a transmitter point it in the right direction and ask Galileo to searh for rings around Uranus?)

As if that wasn't enough hacker brilliance, design changes in the wake of the Challenger explosion completely ruled out the original idea of just sending Galileo out to Mars and slingshotting towards Jupiter. Instead, two Ed Harris characters at NASA figured out a triple bank shot -- a Venus flyby, followed by two Earth flybys two years apart -- to get it out to Jupiter. NASA has come in for an awful lot of criticism lately, but there are still some things they do amazingly well.

But let's talk a bit about that criticism. You know, about safety, and how they can't make honest estimates of odds when lives are at stake. I've expressed similar sentiments in this space before. The Galileo story points out, I think, that the problem is not that NASA is messed-up, but that manned space flight is messed-up.

Go back and reread the first sentence in the last paragraph but one. Those "design changes" involved stripping Galileo's liquid-fuel propulsion system; after the Challenger explosion, liquid fuels were considered too dangerous to carry as cargo. The whole triple bank shot was a brilliant hack to compensate for the externally-imposed design constraint of not using liquid fuel.

The incredible difficulty and riskiness of manned flight, in other words, dictated the conditions under which the unmanned operation had to function. Which, when you consider the "scientific" justification for the space shuttle program, is completely backwards. Instead of designing a space program to put up the spacecraft we want to launch, we're launching precisely those spacecraft that a shuttle designed and built twenty years ago can handle.

Manned spaceflight is, in the Ursula K. LeGuin sense, perverse. It's an act of pure conspicuous waste, like eating fifty hotdogs or memorizing ten thousand digits of pi. We do it precisely because it is difficult verging on insane. You almost don't need to put the people in the space shuttle: we've built, at enormous expense, a system which is perfectly capable of taking people up into space and bringing them down again safely, most of the time. And that's a nice feel-good show-off national achievement. I guess.

But something like Galileo puts things back in perspective again. We can learn about this amazing universe we inhabit and we can pull off the most stunning feats of ingenuity, and not everything worth doing comes with mortal peril attached.