Saturday, March 24, 2007

When torture becomes normal

Few things have made me as ashamed of my country as the recent release of the confession of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Sure, I was tortured, but since then I've had a chance to think it over, and now I am really confessing -- since when do we accept confessions like this in our country? It sounds like something from the Moscow show trials of the 1930s. Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, writes about this in today's NYT.
If there was one surprising aspect to this situation it has less to do with the confessions themselves than with the fact that for the first time in a great many years, torture was normalized — presented as something acceptable. The ethical consequences of it should worry us all.
"The U. S. went medieval on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed," read the callout quote in the print edition. Zizek writes:
Are we aware what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture? A significant detail of Mr. Mohammed’s confession gives a hint. It was reported that the interrogators submitted to waterboarding and were able to endure it for less than 15 seconds on average before being ready to confess anything and everything. Mr. Mohammed, however, gained their grudging admiration by enduring it for two and a half minutes.

Are we aware that the last time such things were part of public discourse was back in the late Middle Ages, when torture was still a public spectacle, an honorable way to test a captured enemy who might gain the admiration of the crowd if he bore the pain with dignity? Do we really want to return to this kind of primitive warrior ethics?

This is why, in the end, the greatest victims of torture-as-usual are the rest of us, the informed public. A precious part of our collective identity has been irretrievably lost. We are in the middle of a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone, to dampen and undo what is arguably our civilization’s greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.
Dick Cheney and his enablers -- including Harvard law prof and occasional theorist of the legal niceties of torture Alan Dershowitz -- have a hell of a lot to answer for.

Viacom vs. Google: What about fair use?

[The Congress shall have Power…] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries; -- U.S. Constitution
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8
What does the Constitution have to say about the copyright issues in the Viacom lawsuit against Google regarding the posting of their material on YouTube? Directly, nothing. These few words are the only constitutional authorization for patent and copyright law, and the clause does not even mention them by name.

Within these limits, copyright has been defined by Congress and the courts. There has always been a healthy tension built into the constitutional provision, balancing the public interest ("to promote the progress of science and useful arts") and the intellectual property rights of creators. Over the years, the compromise that tried to resolve these competing claims became known as the doctrine of fair use.

Fair use is what has always allowed people to quote reasonable excerpts of copyrighted works such as books and magazines, on the grounds that doing otherwise would totally stifle intellectual and cultural life. And it's fair use that has come under increasing attack in recent years by corporate media giants -- entities the Framers could not even have imagined, and who often act as if, when it comes to digital media, there is no such thing as fair use, but only their absolute intellectual property rights.

That's why the YouTube lawsuit seems so surreal. The public interest is the last thing of concern to the corporate giants now fighting it out in the courts. The public might think that putting up a short clip of the John Stewart Show on YouTube is fair use. The corporate giants disagree, and are only fighting about how to divide the spoils. Walter Mossberg wrote about this a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal
I am not a lawyer, and I have no idea how this lawsuit will wind up. I suspect it is mainly a bargaining tactic by Viacom. But I know one thing: This fight isn't primarily about consumers and their rights, and its outcome won't necessarily make things better for Internet users.
Congress Created this situation with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and Congress needs to fix it -- taking input from more than the media giant lobbyists who largely wrote the DMCA. Mossberg again:
As a nonlawyer, I think these clips seem like "fair use," an old copyright concept that seems to have weakened under the advent of the new laws. Under fair use, as most nonlawyers have understood it, you could quote this sentence in another publication without permission, though you'd need the permission of the newspaper to reprint the entire column or a large part of it. A two-minute portion of a 30-minute TV show seems like the same thing to me.

But why should I have to guess about that? What consumers need is real clarity on the whole issue of what is or isn't permissible use of the digital content they have legally obtained. And that can come only from Congress. Congress is the real villain here, for having failed to pass a modern copyright law that protects average consumers, not just big content companies.

We need a new digital copyright law that would draw a line between modest sharing of a few songs or video clips and the real piracy of mass distribution. We need a new law that would define fair use for the digital era and lay out clearly the rights of consumers who pay for digital content, as well as the rights and responsibilities of Internet companies.
Mossberg is right, and I hope his voice helps prod Congress into action. Congress needs to protect the public interest. Otherwise, the promise of the Internet will be lost in intellectual property gridlock. -- or even worse, a two-tier Internet in which the only full participants will be people with the means to pay endless, exorbitant user fees of one sort or another.

Friday, March 23, 2007

McDonald's, friend of the demeaned worker

McDonald's wants to do some dictionary repair. McDonald's is planning to ask the Oxford English Dictionary to get rid of its current definition of "McJob," which the OED defines as "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector." Company executives say the definition is demeaning to its workers.
"Dictionaries are supposed to be paragons of accuracy. And in this case, they got it completely wrong," said Walt Riker, a McDonald's spokesman. "It's a complete disservice and incredibly demeaning to a terrific work force and a company that's been a jobs and opportunity machine for 50 years."
Weird -- the never-ending mysteries of the corporate mind: While the OED doesn't link the McDonald's brand to the definition of "McJob," McDonald's sure seems to be working hard to make sure nobody misses the connection. If the shoe fits, wear it, I guess.

(H/t to Medulla Noodle)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Who needs Republicans when Democrats are perfectly capable of swiftboating each other?

Color me (somewhat) surprised. I really had thought that the Hillary 1984 mashup of the old Apple commercial benefited Republicans the most and probably was one of those Karl Rove "leave no fingerprints" dirty tricks. The image of Hillary as a totalitarian Big Sister is one of the oldest Republican hot button talking points. At the same time, the You Tube hit suggested that Obama was more than willing to stoop to sleazy tactics. In other words, both of the leading Democratic contenders were at least briefly tarnished. What Democrat would want that?

Apparently, Democrat Phil De Vellis -- who worked for Blue State Digital, which designed the Obama campaign's Web site (Obama, however, disclaimed any involvement in this exercise in creativity). And De Vellis actually seemed quite proud of himself, as he wrote in the Huffington Post:
Hi. I'm Phil. I did it. And I'm proud of it.

I made the "Vote Different" ad because I wanted to express my feelings about the Democratic primary, and because I wanted to show that an individual citizen can affect the process. There are thousands of other people who could have made this ad, and I guarantee that more ads like it--by people of all political persuasions--will follow.

This shows that the future of American politics rests in the hands of ordinary citizens.
For smarmy disingenuousness, this is hard to beat. Leaving aside the fact that, Web 2.0 rhetoric to the contrary, most ordinary citizens are probably not capable of sitting down and whipping up their own video mashups -- with nearly a year to go until the primaries, what is a Democrat doing attacking a fellow Democrat with rightwing Republican talking points. Saying the mashup was funny doesn't get him off the hook. Steve at No More Mister Nice Blog seems to agree.
Look, I have problems with Hillary Clinton, but just as David Geffen should have known he was repeating (and reinforcing) right-wing memes when he talked to Maureen Dowd, Phil De Vellis should have known that with this ad he was reinforcing the right-wing message that Hillary is a monster who seeks to accrue excessive amounts of power, which she craves because she has totalitarian impulses and can't wait to crush America under her jackboot.
He goes on to point out that this is not the first time De Vellis has played footsie with the right to attack a fellow Democrat.

Yes, the ad is fun to watch. But the humor -- and the fact that De Vellis seems more naive than malicious -- masks another issue we need to look at before it comes back and bites us. This time, the anonymity of YouTube helped facilitate what was essentially a clever prank. What if it had been a Rovian dirty trick? How would we know the difference? And how will we keep real dirty tricksters from using YouTube as a conduit in the closing moments of a close race in the future, now that it's been conclusively demonstrated how quickly a striking pseudo-ad can go viral?

BlOGGING ABOUT ABUSE OF THE lOWERCASE l AND ABUSE OF lITERAllY

Letter from Here tends to stray all over the map. I can't help myself. But I really admire blogs like lowercase L that are able to maintain a tight focus on a specific mission. (H/t to another language blog, The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.) According to Emily Brady in the NYT, William Levin is a man with a mission.
Two summers ago, a computer consultant and cartoonist named William Levin was strolling down Seventh Avenue in Park Slope when the window of Jackrabbit Sports caught his eye. Above a display of shoes was a sign advertising marathon and triathlon training programs. An individual with an untrained eye might not have given the sign a second glance. But to Mr. Levin, the chubby capital letters contained a serious flaw.

“It looked like triathion,” said Mr. Levin, who spends a lot of time worrying about the mixing of lowercase L’s with uppercase letters, a state of affairs that in his opinion makes the L’s look like I’s.

Mr. Levin, a boyish-looking 35-year-old, has noticed these misplaced lower-case L’s since childhood, but for some reason spotting the sign at Jackrabbit Sports represented a turning point. In Mr. Levin’s words, “It inspired me to begin the mission.”
Whether posting about a SPERM SAMPlE involved in the Anna Nicole Smith litigation or just a sign in a Bergenfield, NJ grocery advertising BARTlET PEARS, Levin and his readers are on the case, trying to expose and stamp out this nefarious practice. His blogroll links to some other language blogs, including another tightly focused blog that deals with a serious issue that also involves the letter "L," or at least a word that begins with it.

The blog is Literally, A Web Log, which documents the abuse of the word "literally," which is threatening to literally change the meaning of the word. Sentences like this drive you nuts? This is the place for you.
“I was really excited that I went ahead to play Hobart because I was really rusty, and I can see the rust shedding from my game literally.
Other recent examples include someone who "literally tries to jump out of her skin" and a note about the Puget Sound area, where it was "literally raining cats."

Wrath of the Mome

Sequel to "The Last Mimzy"? No. Or at least, I hope not. Just a reminder to the producers that when you screw around with Lewis Carroll's syntax and orthography, something might rise up and outgrabe you. It's an adjective, guys -- and it's spelled "mimsy."

And what happened to the rest of the line? At a time when literate, evocative movie titles like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" more than hold their own at the box office, does Hollywood really have to punch up and dumb down famous science fiction titles? Is the Pope Catholic? Do androids dream of electric sheep?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Attorneygate: In the context of no context

The conventions of mainstream journalism work against getting to the bottom of something as complex as the Attorneygate firing scandal. One more reason why blogs have come to be so important.

One convention that gets in the way is the lack of context in so much MSM reporting of "just the facts." It's as if the media fear that providing context would compromise their "objectivity" and leave them open to charges of "interpretation," or worse yet, "bias." But without context, facts are meaningless. Context-free reporting is exactly what often allows sources to spin reporters without challenge. Today's NYT story supporting White House talking points that Carol Lam was fired for not going after illegal immigrants aggressively enough is an example:
Without Context:The sporadic complaints developed into a small crisis for the Justice Department by May 2006, when an internal Border Patrol document was leaked to the news media chastising Ms. Lam’s office for its “catch and release” approach.
With Context: May 2006, you'll remember was when all the CIA/Foggo/Hookergate mess was hitting the fan in response to Lam's investigation. So some of the suggestion here is that the bump in DOJ's interest in Lam at this time was immigration-related rather than tied to disgruntlement over here expanding corruption prosecution.
The context was provided by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo and its offshoot TPM Muckraker. They've been providing context from the start, and are raising funds to be able to do even more.

Romney family foot-in-mouth-disease

Like father:
"When I came back from Viet Nam, I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Viet Nam." -- George Romney, 1967
Like son:
"Hugo Chávez has tried to steal an inspiring phrase -- Patria o muerte, venceremos. It does not belong to him. It belongs to a free Cuba." -- Mitt Romney, 2007
Not Ready for Primetime Syndrome is a cruel and merciless malady.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Time for the symbolic magic with the eggs


Spring arrives at 12:07 a.m., Universal Time (the former Greenwich Mean Time), on March 21 -- in the UK. In the U.S., it starts today. The New York Times says go ahead and celebrate, accompanying the invitation with a colorful bouquet of metaphors.
Whatever the date, go on and celebrate, for the vernal equinox is a momentous poem among moments, overspilling its borders like the swelling of sunlight it heralds.
One way to celebrate is to get some eggs and take advantage of the one day they say you can balance them on end. Of course, the magical propensity of eggs to stand up only on the equinox is pure myth -- but a myth with a nice symbolic resonance. Have fun.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Flee thoughts of the loneliness and meaninglessness of existence and take your bun with you

I was watching the TV spot about the guy popping up above his cubicle partition with his prized hot, frosted cinnamon bun. What's with McDonald's? Are they trying to become the new Cinnabon? And why did he take it back to the office in the first place? These things lose a lot of their junk food ambience once they cool off.

I don't know about their marketing strategy, but I think I know why he didn't eat the roll at McDonald's. Alison Lurie wrote recently in the New York Review of Books about several of Alain de Botton's books, focusing especially on recently published The Architecture of Happiness. Lurie quotes a passage in which the author ducks into a London McDonald's and succumbs to a generalized sense of dread.
The setting seemed to render all kinds of ideas absurd: that human beings might sometimes be generous to one another without hope of reward; that relationships can on occasion be sincere; that life may be worth enduring.... The restaurant's true talent lay in the generation of anxiety. The harsh lighting, the intermittent sounds of frozen fries being sunk into vats of oil and the frenzied behaviour of the counter staff invited thoughts of the loneliness and meaninglessness of existence in a random and violent universe.[3]
The footnote leads to Lurie's comment suggesting the feeling was no accident.
[3] De Botton's experience, while exaggerated, is not atypical. As is well known, McDonald's restaurants are deliberately designed both to attract customers and to discourage them from lingering, in order to produce what is known in the trade as "maximum throughput." The bright colors and the huge shiny photographs of high-calorie food draw people in; but the noisy acoustics, glaring overhead lights, small crowded tables, and uncomfortable seats encourage customers to leave as soon as they have finished what is appropriately called "fast food."
Or before they finish. Maybe even before they start. Anything to get away from the existential dread that makes even a cube farm seem warm and welcoming.

Four years of war in microcosm


AP Photo/Hussein Malla


AP Photo/Adele Starr

This is what a cakewalk looks like: Multiply top photo by uncounted tens of thousands, multiply bottom photo by more than 3,000, add hundreds of thousands of walking wounded on both sides who will never fully recover.

But we're making progress. President Bush said so just today.
Together, we've carried out aggressive operations against both Shia and Sunni extremists; carried out operations against al Qaeda terrorists. We've uncovered large caches of weapons and destroyed two major car bomb factories that were located on the outskirts of Baghdad.

I want to stress that this operation is still in the early stages, it's still in the beginning stages. Fewer than half of the troop reinforcements we are sending have arrived in Baghdad. The new strategy will need more time to take effect. And there will be good days, and there will be bad days ahead as the security plan unfolds.
Thank you, Mr. President. Now we understand.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Conservative columnist's brain on baseball

With the approach of spring, in a tradition as old as George Will, conservative columnists' brains turn to baseball. They become allusive and allegorical. They wax metaphorical. They quarry the national pastime for insight, but come up empty-handed -- or with hands overflowing with mixed metaphors and loopy speculations. A case in point is "Your Brain on Baseball," the psychoneurological reflections of David Brooks in today's NYT. Unpack them at your risk.
Baseball players are like storm-tossed sailors falling and rising with the slumps and hot streaks that emanate from inaccessible parts of themselves. The rest of us rationalists use statistics to try to understand the patterns of what they do.
Sailors? "Falling and rising with the slumps and hot streaks"? These are baseball metaphors? Sounds more like the deck of the Bush ship of state.

Looking Back: Actress Maggie McNamara


Seen at the UW Cinematheque last night: A Picasso lithograph leans against the wall. A young woman sits in almost ominous isolation surrounded by the designer furniture of the early fifties.

It's a still from near the end of a famous 1953 movie, although the scene is not very representative of the movie as a whole, which started out as a hit Broadway comedy and arrived on the big screen as a busy, frothy screwball romance with lots of "adult" dialogue by the standards of the time.

The actress is Maggie McNamara, and in this film she's rarely alone on screen. Rather, she's playing a wide-eyed ingénue reminiscent of the young Audrey Hepburn with a bit of Debbie Reynolds thrown in, flirting comically with one or the other or both of her costars, William Holden and David Niven. Hers was the kind of fresh, memorable performance that enlivens an otherwise not very good film. Part of the fun of watching the movie is seeing the excitement of a career-making performance.

Yet there seems to be an undercurrent of sadness in her portrayal of the hyperactive, outspoken flirt, or maybe it just seems that way in retrospect. Something about the eerie stillness of this picture tugs at us and makes us worry about McNamara's future. What happened to her after this impressive debut?

The movie is Otto Preminger's "The Moon Is Blue," which the Cinematheque showed in a newly restored print, lovely to look at, fifties modern interiors in wonderful, pristine shades of gray on the silver screen. With its "racy" dialogue featuring then taboo words like "virgin," "seduce," "mistress" and "pregnant" -- along with zingers like "better to be preoccupied with sex than occupied with it" -- this was a controversial film at the time, the first ever released without a Production Code seal. The controversy made it a hit.

Now the movie is a time machine of fifties lifestyles, social customs and interior design. The above still is from SuperAdaptoid's Flickr set of screen captures from a broadcast of the film. He started watching because of the furniture, got hooked on the action and kept watching. He aptly titles the set "The Moon is Blue, Saarinen's Womb Chair is Gray."
Just idly flicking channels, my eye was caught by the unmistakable outline of a Womb Chair by Eero Saarinen taking a prominent position mid frame. I kept watching to see where and how the set designer used it and it mostly stayed on camera throughout the film as a prop and a mood enhancer. Just the thing for indicating Holden's bachelor and architectural credentials, it would have been fresh off the Knoll assembly line that year.
But what about Maggie McNamara? She was born in New York in 1928. She began modeling in her teens. In 1951 she joined the national touring company of "The Moon Is Blue." Then Preminger signed her to star in the film version of "The Moon Is Blue." It was her first movie, and it not only made her a star, but garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1954. She was signed by Fox and starred in another well-known movie, the 1954 comedy "Three Coins in a Fountain." Her career seemed to be taking off.

But something went wrong. The known facts about her life are sketchy, but there was a marriage in the fifties that had ended in divorce by 1957, when her ex-husband David Swift remarried. She acted in a couple other films, including the role of Florrie Fermoyle in Preminger's "The Cardinal" in 1963. After that it was television. A month after John Kennedy was killed, she played a Hollywood starlet named Bunny Blake in a Twilight Zone episode shown here, called "Ring-A-Ding Girl," written by Earl Hamner who a few years later would create "The Waltons." In 1964 she was in several more TV shows, including "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour." After that, she dropped out of sight.

An actor's absence from the screen can seem like a metaphorical death for performers and a literal one for fans. A few years ago, author Mary Gordon wrote in the essay collection Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity of going to see "Three Coins in a Fountain" when she was five years old. On p. 188 she writes about the three American girls in the movie who are looking for husbands in Rome: "The youngest, played by Maggie McNamara, who in real life died soon afterward, is a typical Midwestern naive." In reality, she lived on for 24 years after the 1954 film, in growing obscurity.

She died in New York in 1978 from a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills. She was 49 years old and supporting herself as a typist.

Maggie McNamara was buried in a family plot in Saint Charles Cemetary, Farmingdale, New York. A relative told the New York Times that Maggie had been doing some writing, and that her film script had been accepted by a new production company. The screenplay was called "The Mighty Dandelion."