Feed Me

Anyone who thinks writing a blog or journal is like feeding an ever-gaping mouth should try writing a book on a very short deadline. The Book of the Dumb 2 is on just such a deadline — it’s due in a couple of months — and so that means that that in order to finish it, one must be both relentless and methodical. Relentless in the sense that each day and every day, I need to crank out five entries (which is 2,000 words, more or less).

Methodical in that the schedule needs to be adhered to; excepting an official holiday like my birthday, any day I write fewer than five entires, those entries need to be picked up on another day. Thursday I didn’t write any entries — I had errands to run and it’s Krissy’s school night, so I had to keep Athena amused — and yesterday (Friday) I only did five (although I finished up the last two after midnight), so I need to pick up the other five over the weekend, probably by doing seven entries one day and eight the next. The good news, as I noted before, is that 2004 appears to be a bumper crop year for stupidity, so I’m not lacking in topics.

The issue is not one of creativity, it’s one of mechanics. I’m having fun with the book — it’s hard not to, given the subject — but no matter how you slice it, 2,000 words a day is a grind. I enjoy writing the entries once I begin, but I procrastinate something fierce before I start. This is why the last two Friday pieces actually got written after midnight on Saturday.

What’s the upside? Well, in two weeks I’ve written 60 entries, and 22,000 words. Another 60 in the next two weeks (which is actually less than five entries a day, but never mind that for the moment) with a similar word count and then suddenly half the book is done. Another month of that, and then I’ll still have a month to do tweaking of content and some special targeted entries. And still be able to take a week off to depressurize (which will be important, believe me). It’s doable, and it’s not too hard from the creative writing standpoint. But it means sticking to a schedule.

And after that? Well, then right off to other projects (although I will probably take an additional few days off at the very end to sleep). In addition to the gaping maw of this book, there’s the gaping maw of life, which must be fed. That’s my job around here: Feeding the maws. Most of the time, there are worse gigs.

Meet the New Toy

I went out and bought myself a new digital camera yesterday: A Kodak EasyShare DX4530, photographed here by the Olympus Camedia C-21 which it is replacing. Which almost seems cruel, doesn’t it. Like the guy who’s being laid off being made to train the new guy who’s taking his job. Fortunately, they’re objects, without sense and feeling, and anyway, as I noted over at By The Way, the Olympus is destined for Athena duty, since we already know she likes playing with the camera. I can’t say that we’re frugal here in the Scalzi household, but we’re definitely “waste not, want not.”

I was hesitant about the Kodak at first, more or less for the same reason I don’t like shopping at Sears; it seems like the last century’s brand name. But it it was well-reviewed, reasonably priced ($300, which is what I bought the Olympus for about four years ago), and it had a nice range of features yet provided me the ability not to do anything but snap pictures if that’s what I wanted (and it is; I’m not the guy who is sitting there fiddling with f-stops). Also, it uses AA batteries and a non-proprietary storage system, which recommended it over other cameras in the same price and tech range. The camera has a 5 megapixel resolution, which considering that nearly every picture I have gets cropped and resized, is more than I probably need on a day to day basis. I in fact currently have it set for the “medium” 3.1 Mp resolution, since it allows a nice balance between number of pictures on the memory card and picture detail. I won’t be printing posters of my shots, after all. But’s nice to have.

I’m pretty pleased with the camera so far, particularly in its color reproduction; the Olympus would be a little washed out, but the Kodak hits it. For example, the trees outside my house really are this shade of green:

So it’s nice not to have to fiddle with a picture in Photoshop to get it closer to correct. I’m still trying to figure out the various quirks of the thing, mostly having to do with exposure and focus, but it’s got a pretty shallow learning curve. I’ll get it.

One thing I did not buy the camera for but which I can tell will be something I am going to use is its ability to record moving pictures (it has a little built-in microphone, so you can have sound, too, but it’s not exactly super high quality). I surprised Krissy when she came home last night with a little film of Athena saying all the reasons why she loved mommy, which was so cute that Krissy didn’t even ask what I paid for the camera. I don’t have any illusions as to where Athena gets her manipulation super powers, you know. Anyway, I expect to take lots of little movies of my little girl. Don’t worry, I won’t inflict them upon you.

Should you expect more pictures now? No, just expect them to look marginally better. See, I’m all about customer service.

Evaluating Stupidity

As most of you know, I’m spend a lot of my time recently banging out The Book of the Dumb 2 (“Now with 30% extra stupidity!”), and I imagine as most of you suspect, the task is not especially onerous, since there’s a whole world of stupidity out there. The hard part is not finding stupidity to write about, the hard part is choosing what not to write about.

To give you an example of this, let me recount for you today’s stupidity selections (as of around noon today — yes, this is just in the first twelve hours of a 24 hour period), and tell you which of these I’m like to write up today and why. The rest will not be thrown away; no, they’ll be stored in a stupidity archive, if you will, into which I can go if for some unfathomable reason there comes a day that has hardly any stupidity in it. This doesn’t seem likely, however.

Also be aware that a) these are selections from just one of my stupidity harvesting stops — they’re from FARK.com, which to my mind is probably the best Web site ever, for me, because of these books. However, I have other sources I also hit, just not yet today; and b) these are the selections after I’ve thrown out quite a few other similar stories that I can’t use. For example, the story about how two Ukrainian soldiers caused three-quarters of a billion dollars in damages by smoking in an ammunition dump (it has people dying, and the BotD books cede the “stupid and dead” arena to the Darwin Awards).

Okay? Here’s today’s stupidity harvest, so far:

Beermats explain EU to Welsh drinkers
Concept: Welsh people woefully ignorant about EU, so try to get them to read about it when they’re drunk.
Use It: Oh, yeah. However, this will the third EU story I’ve written up so far; unless I’m planning a whole section on EU stupidity (which isn’t a bad idea, actually), this is the last one.

Globe caught with pants down: Paper duped into running porn photos
Concept: The Boston Globe runs pictures of what they thought were Iraqi prison atrocities; actually, it’s just staged porn.
Use It: Maybe — On one hand, it’s always amusing when the media does something really stupid; on the other hand, the Iraq prison atrocities are still not funny, and may continue to not be funny through September-October, which is when the book comes out.

‘I Want You’: Love Letters To Student Land Teacher In Trouble
Concept: Female teacher writes male student love letters, which are discovered in his locker.
Use It: Maybe, but probably not. To be sexist about it, it’s the fact the teacher is female and the student male that makes it usable; it’s kind of creepy and sad, but if the sexes were reversed it’d only be creepy and sad. I’ll store it and see if any better sex-related stories come around, which they almost certainly will.

Coffins mixed up
Concept: Undertakers bring the wrong coffin to a funeral; funeral delayed an hour as they go back to get the right one.
Use It: Oh, yeah. Bringing the wrong coffin to a funeral is classic stupidity.

Man Says Tornado Made Him Try To Kill
Concept: Man uses a “Twinkie Defense,” only in this case the Twinkie is a rampaging cyclone.
Use It: Maybe. The case isn’t settled yet, and it’d be better to see how it turns out. The good news here is that the murder here is only attempted, and therefore I can use it.

Woman Commutes for Welfare Benefits
Concept: Women pretends to live in San Francisco to get city’s comparatively generous welfare package, but actually commutes from Lake Tahoe to get take her appointments.
Use It: Probably, since there’s a point to be made that all the effort and initiative the woman is making to secure a few extra bucks from Welfare could have been probably better used to get, you know, a job.

‘Pirates’ may lose some loot
Concept: Teenage kids posing as pirates walk in a kiddie parade as a prank; are cited and charged $100 each.
Use It: Eh. Maybe. It’s definitely B-list material.

Bourbon sold in soft drink can
Concept: Four year old thinks she’s drinking a Pepsi, but there’s actually a Jim Beam and Cola mix. A screw-up at the factory.
Use It: Sure. You can never go wrong with corporate stupidity that involves getting a preschooler wasted (so long as the preschooler is not actually seriously injured, and this one was not).

Man leads officers to his own pot plants
Concept: Man, fearing hallucinated intruders, calls cops who can’t help but notice his agricultural enthusiasms.
Use It: Duh. Of course. Don’t do drugs, kids!

“Dead” Fugitive Found In California
Concept: Wanted man fakes his own death, but can’t change his fingerprints.
Use it: Probably. This is a good “Tips For Stupid Criminals” story.

A Failing Grade For “Friends”
Concept: NBC Research report from 1994 says the sitcom Friends isn’t funny.
Use It: You bet. It’s timely and it’s also correct in its details. Well, it is.

Audience Lied to at Reality Show Taping
Concept: Producers making an anti-American Idol tell audience members that the terrible singers they’re about to hear all have terminal cancer, so please treat them nicely.
Use It: Absolutely, if only to get in the following comment from an unconvinced audience member: “I said to myself, ‘There should be some cancer patients who could actually hold a note.’ ”

Naughty gnomes made to cover up
Concept: Guy buys naked gnomes; is told to paint clothing on them.
Use it: Possibly. This is one of those that I’d probably have to work myself up in the writing department to really make it fly.

Kid brings mercury to school
Concept: Teen thinks it’d be amusing to show friends a cup of poisonous liquid metal; resulting clean up costs school district $163K.
Use It: Eventually. I just wrote a piece on a kid bringing a live artillery shell to school, though, so I’ll probably sit on it for a couple of weeks to think of some new way to write it up.

Lightning Close Tap On Beer Giveaway
Concept: Pro hockey team thinks nothing could go wrong by giving away free beer to season ticket holders; everyone else in Florida disagrees and force the team to change its mind.
Use it: Hockey? Free beer? Florida? How could one not use it?

Just remember: I do this every single day. And some of you wonder why I’m cynical about humanity.

Science and God, Part Mumble Mumble Mumble

Via Metafilter (which got it via Boing Boing, which got it via Slashdot), a really fascinating interview with Brother Guy Consolmagno, Curator of Meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. Among the number of things in the interview is a view of science as it relates to religion and to the appreciation of the universe, a few which is pretty much sums my own opinion why science and religion are not inherently incompatible (I’ll use bolding here rather than italics because it’s a long quote):

And there’s two things going on there. One is the sense that, if God made the universe, and he made it good, and he loved the universe so much that, as the Christians believe, he sent his only son, it’s up to us to honor and respect and get to know the universe. I think it was Francis Bacon who said that God sets up the universe as a marvelous puzzle for us to get to know him by getting to know how he did things. By seeing how God created, we get a little sense of God’s personality. And that means, among other things not going in with any preconceived notions. We can’t impose our idea of how God did things. It’s up to us to see how the universe actually does work.

And the other assumption you have to make is that it’s worth doing. If your idea, if your religion is to meditate and rise above the physical universe, this corrupting physical universe, you might say, you’re not going to be a scientist, you’re not going to be interested in Mars. So it’s a religious statement to say the physical universe is worth devoting my life to. Seeing how the universe works is worth spending a lifetime doing.

Interestingly (or not, depending on your point of view), this reminds me of something I wrote quite a long time ago now, with a book idea about a man who has lunch with the Devil (or more accurately, a man who claims he is the Devil — it’s not something that gets proven during the course of the book), and the Devil, who claims to be working with God, not against him, explains why humans today will come to know God differently from the way they know God thousands of years ago:

“What I tell you now would be true whether I was the Devil or not,” the Devil said. “If you had lived in Job’s time, you wouldn’t doubt the existence of God. You’d see Him all around you. Frankly, you couldn’t get rid of Him. He would be everywhere. That’s because, at the time, God needed to here. Truly, physically here, to help open humanity’s mind to the world outside his hut, his tribe, the next day. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.

“But God has had to hide Himself again… Humans are lazy. God gave you these big fat brains, and spent the time to pop their tops so you could use them as they were designed. But as long as God was obviously around, you were content to let him do the heavy lifting. Which is not what you were designed for.

“So He went away, and the history of your progression in the world is a history of your trying to locate Him again… Your test is: do you have the faith to find God again? And on God’s terms? Expecting God as He appeared thousands of years ago will do you no good. You’ll be like Job’s friends, sticking to an old way of thinking even as the new one peers you right in the face. No, you’ll have to find God again by seeking Him out in the world as it is today, using all the knowledge that you have at your disposal. It’s a harder task than Job had, but you’re not the same sort of people that Job was. Not anymore.”

I’m willing to believe such an idea — that God wants us to explore the universe in order to better understand Him — has more credibility coming from a Jesuit scientist working from the Vatican than it does coming from the 25-year-old iteration of me who was trying to sell his first book.

(Incidentally, if you want to see the whole sample chapter upon which that bit was based, it’s here. I think it’s still interesting, although if I were writing it now I might edit it down a little — or a lot. It’s funny what a decade of writing experience will do to your perspective of your own prose.)

In any event, read the interview with Brother Guy. It’s well worth your time.

DeLay, and the Frat Meme

Someone forwarded me a link to this story noting lawmakers’ general horrified reactions, and suggested I take special note of Tom DeLay’s reaction to the pictures, which is thus:

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said he thought “some people are overreacting.”

“The people who are against the war are using this to their political ends,” he said.

Well, but that’s Tom DeLay for you, isn’t it? Tom DeLay is the sort of partisan hack who, if the Devil showed up in his office sporting cash for the GOP, would be on the horn telling the Republican caucus that he heard that Jesus fellow was a goddamn liberal commie who’d get the crap kicked out of him if he ever set foot in Texas.

I don’t think DeLay is utterly without the capacity to appreciate the pictures, which he described to the AP (not in this particular story) as “Pretty disgusting … Looks like someone was trying to put together a porno film or something.” (Which makes you winder what porn DeLay’s been watching.) However, I don’t imagine it even occurred to DeLay to look at those pictures except through the filter of what advantages they afford his enemies, and therefore, how they must be refuted.

The way to test this is to check to see if you really believe that if this had happened in the Clinton era, that DeLay would say the same thing. There’d be about as much chance of that as there is of me sprouting butterfly wings out of my nostrils. Long story short: DeLay’s a sad little man, and this is just more of the same from him. Let’s move on.

I do note an interesting meme going through the right side of the aisle regarding the torture, which is comparing it to fraternity hazing:

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Houston, said some of the photos were violent, most showed humiliation of the prisoners and some were simply juvenile.

“A number of the photos were just sophomoric like fraternity prank stuff that left you shaking your head, like hazing almost of the prisoners,” Brady said.

Rush Limbaugh also ran with the meme, saying “This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation.” Which of course makes one ask: So they’re sodomizing initiates with glow sticks at Yale? Interesting.

Two things going on here: One, someone needs to do a study why the most ready metaphor for torture a GOPer can reach for is a fraternity hazing, because that’s gotta mean something. Two, in the case of the Limbaughs of the world, it’s an explicit attempt to minimize and infantilize the problem for no other reason than “their side” is under attack, which is a shameful thing to do.

As much as I dislike the general concept of fraternities, I somehow doubt that any of them regularly have initiations where the initiates are anally violated until they bleed (which one of the lawmen reported seeing in the new pictures), or have dogs bite them to the point of severe injuries. And if they do, it’s the same as what it is in Iraq: Torture.

Because I’m a Technical Idiot

Does anyone else out there using the Mozilla Firefox browser have problems viewing Blogspot-based blogs?

The problem I have is that after the first couple of paragraphs all I get is gibberish that looks like this (taken from this blog):

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Sometimes reloading the page works, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t have the problem at all in IE. The Firefox version I’m using is 0.8.

Anyone else having this problem? Any ideas as to what might be causing it?

I mean, I don’t read that many Blogspot blogs, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to read the ones I do. Opening up a separate browser just to look at them is kind of annoying.

Iraq Prison Follow-Up

Some various follow-up thoughts on the Iraq prison scandal:

* A reader was wondering what I thought about the comparison (made in this commentary in the NYT by Luc Sante) of how the soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison appear more or less like the white folk in pictures from the first part of the 20th century — the ones in which they’ve lynched a black man:

In photographs that were taken and often printed as postcards in the American heartland in the first four decades of the 20th century, black men are shown hanging from trees or light fixtures or maybe being burned alive, while below them white people are laughing and pointing for the benefit of the camera. There are some pictures of whites being lynched, too, but these tend not to feature the holiday crowd. Often the spectators at lynchings of African-Americans are so effusive in their mugging that they all seem to be vying for credit. Before seeing such pictures you might expect the faces in them to express some kind of collective rage; instead the mood is giddy, often verging on hysterical, with a distinct sexual undercurrent.

Sante goes on to make the point that “a fundamental lack of respect for the enemy’s body becomes an issue only when the enemy is perceived as being of another race.” I don’t know that I buy this last assertion, which strikes me as too easy a formulation, unless Sante means “another race” as meaning “not human at all.” Which he doesn’t, but which for me makes sense. I think it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the soldiers of Abu Ghraib dehumanized their charges to the point that they were able to do whatever they felt like doing.

I do think there’s a significant difference between the lynching photos Sante references and the photos from Abu Ghraib, although I leave it people with more time for meta analysis to consider. And that is that the lynching photographs tended to be entirely posed (nighttime photography was no small thing in the 1920s). A lot of the Abu Ghraib photos I’ve seen are of posed scenes (particularly the scenes of sexual humiliation), but the photographs themselves have all the hallmarks of the digital camera era: they have a casual snapshot feel to them. The lynchers formalized their moments of atrocity, but the Abu Ghraib picture takers took photos more opportunistically; I suspect partially because they could (you never run out of film in a digital camera), and partly because it’s this generation’s film vocabulary. Again, what it means, I’m not entirely sure.

I’m hesitant to directly equate the soldiers in the pictures to the people who lynched other Americans. There’s no doubt the lynchers were on the wrong side of the law no matter how you slice it; while I believe the soldiers at Abu Ghraib did morally repugnant things, it’s not clear how much was their own initiative and how much was ordered from above. There’s an ethical grey area there which deserves further examination. One thing I do find to be an exact analogue: Just as lynchers sometimes made their pictures into postcards, some of these soldiers made their pictures into screensavers.

* I doubt very seriously that the murder of Nicholas Berg was related to the Abu Ghraib prison events in any sense other than opportunistically, i.e., this particular cadre of terrorists saw it as a way to get more publicity for something they were going to do anyway. Also, beheading an American and putting the tape up on the Web shows these guys have a complete lack of understanding of the American psyche. They figured they could ride the wave of disgust to make their point and compound American doubt about our presence in Iraq, but for the average American this goes a long way to counteract the events of Abu Ghraib. The average American, I suspect, values one American life more than an entire prison full of Iraqs who, to use dumbass Senator Inhofe’s words, “are not there for traffic violations” (even if some of those in the prison apparently aren’t there for any particularly good reason at all). In other words, if you want to make the average American feel better about Abu Ghraib, beheading a civilian American who had nothing to do with it and claiming the act as retaliation is just about the perfect way to do it.

* Back to Inhofe: What a moron. The best counteraction for Inhofe speaking directly from his anus comes from Senator Lindsey Graham, who said: “When you are the good guys, you’ve got to act like the good guys.” This is exactly right. How we treat prisoners is not a reflection of what the prisoners “deserve,” it’s a reflection of who we see ourselves as being, and I don’t want our nation to be what Inhofe is willing to settle for it being. I expect better.

* Aside from Inhofe’s gaseous emanations of stupidity, I do think the response on Capitol Hill has largely been correct so far. This is a serious issue that goes to the core of the success of the mission in Iraq; it needs to be taken seriously and it needs to be corrected. It’s going to be extremely difficult to overcome, but I think some amount of genuine and public examination and self-flagellation is useful for us and useful for the rest of the world to see. Useful for us in that it allows us to correct our course and have a dialogue on what the hell is actually going on in Iraq — a dialogue worth having again and again, for roughly the same amount of time that we are in Iraq. Useful for the rest of the world because it shows the part of the American political character that wants get to the bottom of a problem rather than dismiss it or minimize it. It won’t matter to the people who genuinely hate the US, quite obviously, but it’ll go some way to keeping most other people from total despair.

It would have been better not to have this discussion at all and to have had our prisons in Iraq run competently. But there’s no point in going over what would have been better. In the world right now, I think we’re doing okay dealing with the aftermath. Congressionally speaking, in any event. Don’t get me started on the Executive branch.

Rant Arrives

My personal copies of Rant: Collected Ventings 1999 — 2004 arrived today, and I thought I’d display a copy with a thematically appropriate face. Overall it looks pretty nice, although I would say the cover seems susceptible to humidity, so if you decide you’d like a copy of your own, be sure to store it in a cool and dry place. If I’ve received mine, than some of the folks who bought copies of their own should be getting theirs as well within the next couple of days. Hopefully they will enjoy them. Remember to pick up a copy of your own: They make fine gifts and table balancers.

I should note that looking at the picture above, I’m always a little surprised at how little I look like my mental image of myself. Now, admittedly, when one’s face is contorted in mock rage, it’s not likely to look like anyone’s mental image of one’s self (and if it does, there are some fine medications one may wish to consider); however, even when my face is rather less twisted up I don’t look like I think I look.

It’s not actually a matter of getting older, although I admit my mental image of myself has more hair than I actually do. I also don’t think I look bad. I mean, I’m no looker, but I clean up decently. I think it’s more about the fact that when I was younger I spent substantially more time looking into a mirror than I do now, so anytime I look at my face today for an extended period it’s always mildly surprising.

Having shared with you a picture of myself at my most dweeby, allow me to continue this entry of extreme narcissism by sharing a photo where I think I actually approach looking somewhat cool. My AOL overlords wanted a couple new pictures of me and specifically asked for a couple with me in sunglasses (for a particular promotion that’s coming up this next week). So that’s why I took this one:

Should I ever decide to write a cyberpunkish novel, I think I’ll use that for the author photo. Rather unfortunately, for as much as I think this latter picture is more “cool,” I have to admit the first picture is quite a bit more in line with my personality: Heavy on the ham. I suspect this is why I was never actually cool in my life — “cool” implied a certain level of remove, and I’m pretty puppy dog-ish in my enthusiasms. Oh, well. There are worse things than not being cool.

A Moment of Really Lame Introspection

Look, it’s me being all, like, pensive and grown up and crap like that. Don’t worry, it won’t last.

I was going to write some massive retrospective of my life to date here, being that 35 is the Biblical midpoint of life, but I’ve tried starting it three times now, and even I can’t swallow the crap I was writing, which means I certainly can’t inflict it on you. So let’s just pretend I said something funny and insightful and full of wisdom about being a grown-up and living life and being glad for a span of years that actually lets you appreciate more about the world than just yourself. Because I guarantee you what you’re imagining I wrote is a damn sight better than what I actually was writing. Restraint. That’s a key to a writer’s success.

Frankly, I have no wisdom to impart. But I’ll have you know I’m both gratified and somewhat relieved to have made it to age 35 only to discover that I have the coolest wife in the history of wives, the greatest kid yet spawned, and a career that a) is actually what I wanted to do when I grew up and b) has yet to show signs of stalling out from under me. There may in fact be ways that my life could be better. But off the top of my head it’s difficult to think of how without coming across as entirely selfish and ungrateful. So I won’t try. I’ve been unfathomably lucky in this life, and I think I’ll spend the rest of this life working to earn out the karmic credit I’ve been advanced to date. That’s fair.

In short: Life is good. To those of you who have been part of it, I thank you. Now, let’s keep going. Lots to do. Lots to see.


A German reader who was appalled at my suggestion last December that we make Saddam Hussein spend of the rest of his life in a box into which videotaped depositions of the victims of his regime were streamed endlessly (he thought it would be torture, whereas I would be more inclined to call it karmic justice), wanted to know what I thought about the US treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

Well, in no uncertain terms: It is shameful. But more than that, it very simply marks the moment at which I believe the United States has unequivocally lost the larger war for the future of Iraq and of the Middle East, the war, if you will, of the hearts and minds of the Iraqis and of those of good will in the region. Whether one believes that deposing Saddam was a good thing or not, our armed forces have given the enemies of the United States the evidence they need to posit a moral equivalency between us and him, regardless of whether it is true. We have no one to blame for this but ourselves: If one does not wish to be compared to a brutal dictator who crushed and tortured the Iraqi people, one should not, in fact, crush and torture Iraqis in that brutal dictator’s most infamous prison.

We tortured Iraqis, and the impassioned appeals that such treatment is not representative of our nation’s ideals is utterly aside the point. Those people writing about how noble it was for us to quickly own up to our failings gloss over the salient fact that we have something we need to own up to. Everyone who wants credit for everything we’ve done right in Iraq fails to appreciate that you can’t get credit for doing a bunch of little things right if the things you get wrong are so goddamned spectacular. It’s nice that people are sending toys and school supplies to Iraq. But plush toys and pencils are no match for pictures of US soldiers setting dogs upon naked, cowering Iraqis. It’s not even close.

There’s a word for this sort of thing: Incompetence, and that word sticks to just about everything this current administration has done in Iraq from the moment our forces stabbed into Baghdad. The military offensive was bold and brilliantly done; the occupation of the country has been utterly abysmal, and everything about it seems to have been designed to squander what good will we accrued by freeing the country from Saddam’s grip. This could have been a “good war” — not an easy war — had our administration showed some indication that it actually cared what happened to Iraq and the people within it once Saddam was kicked out of power. But it didn’t, and to a large extent still doesn’t — which is not entirely surprising to me since I personally never believed that George Bush had any interest in invading Iraq except to avenge his father. I had hoped that those around him might show some evidence of long-term thinking once Dubya’s limited objective had been accomplished, but I guess I was wrong about that.

I’m still not sorry we went in and got rid of Saddam — it was an action too long in coming. But everything since then has been nothing short of a disaster; Abu Ghraib is not an exception but the end result of systematic incompetence that plagues the entire enterprise. The abuse and torture the Iraqi prisoners suffered is the fruit of lack of forethought, lack of planning, lack of intent, and lack of care. To put it bluntly, this simply wouldn’t have happened if those at the top of the food chain actually gave a shit about Iraq. But they don’t. Dubya stopped caring the instant they flushed Saddam out of his bug hole; everything since then as been (literally) killing time until we can bug out and claim some sort of moral victory. Well, Abu Ghraib robbed us of that.

Who is responsible? Well, there certainly seems to be enough blame to go around, doesn’t there. Those at the top didn’t care or didn’t want to know or at the very least seem more annoyed that truth is out there than they are of the fact of the torture itself. Depending on who you believe, those at the bottom were either untrained to serve as prison guards and left without real supervision or instruction, or they were following orders from above which explicitly condoned torture. One is malignant neglect, the other is simply evil. It all stinks, from head to tail, and it seems unlikely to me that anyone is going to come away clean.

Personally, what I wish were that it were November so I could cast my vote and register my disgust with this current administration, which in this as in nearly every other thing it has done has shown little but contempt for anyone and anything that is not of its own narrow ilk. Bush and his people are staggeringly bad at their jobs — they are so bad that even their good ideas rot and fester as soon as they are taken out of the bag. This is what you get when the President of the United States is a man who has a level of self-introspection that is best described as canine, and whose cadre of cronies appear outraged at the idea that they can and should be held accountable for their actions (or lack thereof).

This is the worst president and administration since I’ve been alive — yes, even worse than Nixon, because as paranoid and bad as he was, some of his administrative policies did more good than harm. Nixon was criminal, but he wasn’t an incompetent. It’s rather terrifying to say that I’d prefer a competent criminal in the Oval Office than the contemptuous incompetent who is in there now. But there it is. As I’ve said before, Bush isn’t the worst president ever — Buchanan, Harding and (probably) Grant are ahead of him in the queue — but if someone else wants to be the worst president of the 21st century, he or she is really going to have to work at it.

Abu Ghraib is a defining image of the incompetence, contemptuousness and stupidity of this administration; if it eventually helps boot Bush from office, then some good may come from it. I’m sure that the more agitated Bush supporters will try to find a way to make a parallel between Abu Ghraib and the Madrid Bombing; i.e., that it was an example of terrorists gaming the system to get rid of an adversary. But Abu Ghraib is a self-inflicted wound. Al Qaeda didn’t make US servicemen and women torture Iraqis.

I’m sure my German correspondent would want to know how I can declare what happened at Abu Ghraib shameful and yet be perfectly content to inflict what he feels is torture on Saddam Hussein. The answer is simple: I am not my government or my military. It’s one thing for me to concoct what I feel are karmically appropriate punishments against mass murdering dictators in the privacy of my own mind; it’s another thing for my government and military to condone torture or through incompetence or inaction allow torture to occur. As a private individual I’m allowed my fantasies, but my government and my military exist in the real world. I’m not going to be allowed to mete punishment on Saddam, so I am free to creative imaginative sentences. My government and my military are meting out punishment, however, on actual people, none of whom approach the high stinkin’ evil of Saddam. So I would that their creativeness be somewhat less terrible than my own.

Shocking the Shockable Classes

Over at Electrolite, Patrick Nielsen Hayden is more than a little frustrated that the general discussion he wished to have about the utility of shocking the bourgeois has become a specific discussion of Ted Rall’s recent attempts to shock the said class, through the Pat Tillman cartoon and a column this week, which begins: “Now it’s official: American troops occupying Iraq have become virtually indistinguishable from the SS.” Well, that’s the nature of allowing just anyone to step up to the mike (in the form of blog comments): It makes you aware of the schism between what you want to present and what the readers take away.

However, I am interested in the question of the utility of shocking the masses, and I find myself largely in agreement with Patrick in wondering what the point of it is. In my particular case, it’s because a) given the ubiquity of extreme views in our culture, and the enthusiasm of (at least the appearance of) deep ideological divisions in our country, the rhetorical value of shock is somewhat less today than it might have been at other times, and b) people of opposing viewpoints are, I suggest, less than genuinely shocked when someone comes out and says something “shocking,” and indeed crave the outrageous statements from the other side. This is particularly the case in the blogoverse.

Not to nitpick on the various right-ish bloggers who spun themselves up into a tizzy about this week’s Rall cartoon and column, but to be bleakly cynical about it, I have rather large doubts that all of them were so terribly upset that Ted went off on another one of his flights of outrage, since the reaction was exactly as it ever was:

1. Look! Ted Rall’s Gone Insane Again!
2. He’s Just Another Example of the Depravity of the Left!
3. We Should Boycott Everyone Who Has Anything To Do With Him, Ever!
4. And, We Should Ignore Him Forever From This Point Forward! That’ll Teach Him!

But they can’t do that last one — they won’t — because he’s too useful an example of #2. Which is why in six months or whenever, when Ted does another cartoon or column that seems especially cracked, they’ll all get the vapors and declare how disgusting Ted is and post their links to his stuff so all their readers can share in the outrage. Replace “Ted Rall” with “Ann Coulter” for the opposing team, and everyone’s as happy as punch through the election.

I’m not saying these people aren’t actually disgusted or appalled or whatever. Some of them probably are. But their moral disgust is far outstripped by that part of their brain that suggests that this would be an excellent thing to blog about; they are, in effect, rather more opportunistic than outraged. A blog is its own gaping maw: It must be filled. And it must be filled in ways that readers expect. Or so I suspect most bloggers believe and have internalized; outside of the Livejournal ramblings of teenagers describing their day at school, I think vast swaths of bloggers have either consciously or unconsciously tailored their output to what they think will sell – “sell” meaning to encourage others to link and/or retain what readers they’ve already accrued.

So, yes, allow me to suggest that if folks like Ted Rall and/or Ann Coulter (or Michael Savage and Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh and Janeane Garafalo, blah blah blah) didn’t exist, the blog world would be bereft and inconsolable and filled with more pitures of cats than it already is. Which is not the same thing as being shocked. We are opportunists when it comes to selling our viewpoints, and cheap and easy extreme opposite opinions attract us like a brightly colored and scented lure attracts a rainbow trout. The difference is we know what we’re biting on and we bite on it anyway.

(Ted, by the way, is posting some of the more colorful of his hate mail in his own blog. If you scroll down from there, you’ll also see some further comments he has on the Tillman thing.)

It’s not the blog world alone, of course — in the larger universe, the blogverse is still an inbred and slightly mangy playpen in which geeks play. All media outlets get play out of this stuff. The blogs didn’t invent the appropriation of shock for feigned moral outrage; they learned it from other media. Someone wondered if more than five of Ted’s usual clients would run the Pat Tillman piece, but when you consider that Ted got newspaper editorials and radio interviews and an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s television show out of it, honestly, what does it matter? Criticize Ted if you will for making the cartoon (and for capitalizing on the ensuing controversy), but save at least a share of your outrage for folks like Bill O’Reilly, who see Ted as a useful tool for their own agenda. And all that manufactured outrage from the right in turn gets made into useful fodder for the left-leaning folks. It’s the circle of shock, and it moves us all.

I’m not personally shocked by much of what people write or say anymore, and I think generally speaking I don’t pretend to be. At best I’m irritated, which I think comes through when I rant about something here, but I don’t see much value in suggesting that I’m more worked up about something than I really am. Like any bloviating writer, I can get myself worked up if I really want to. But to be genuinely shocked about something, it would have to run deeply counter to my expectations of humans in the real world. There’s not much that does that.

What would be nice is to have some way of knowing what is actually shocking to people. Sometimes you can tell: For example, I think the Iraqi prison story is genuinely shocking: Our image of what our country is runs deeply counter to the pictures and news, which is why by and large there has been unanimity nationwide in the revulsion we feel that some of “our” people have done that. But it’s not trivial to note that this is not a shock manufactured by a writer or artist — it’s a shock that comes from real life.

It’s interesting — and a good thing — to note that our thrill at providing ourselves fake outrage to play with has not blunted our ability to feel genuine shock when it’s warranted. At least, it hasn’t blunted it yet.

Another Internet Milestone

I always wondered when the day would come when someone would auction off one of my book on eBay. It looks like today is that day. Actually, yesterday was — this auction’s already on its second day. Even so.

The guy who’s selling it says of the book: “If you like the stupid criminals on Jay Leno’s headlines, this is the book for you! A quick read, hilarious, and will make you shake your head in disbelief!” To which I say, yeah? If you like the book so much, why are you selling it?

I kid, I kid.

New Bathroom Reader

If you’re still looking for a gift for mom this Mother’s Day, allow me to suggest the Mom’s Bathtub Reader. This particular book was mostly written by Sue Steiner (which is why it’s her name on the cover), but I pitched in a few pieces on mom-related movies and music, and aside from that it’s got the usual Uncle John’s-type panoply of subjects, all at least tangentially related to motherhood. Krissy is already threatening to swipe my contributor copy to give to her mom on Sunday, so you could consider than an endorsement on her end. This book is out in bookstores, so, you know, look for it there.

I’ll also be contributing to a couple other Uncle John’s books this year (in addition to Book of the Dumb 2, currently in process) and of course I’ll let you know when those pop out of the oven as well.

Rant: Collected Ventings 1999 – 2004

I’ve been muttering for some time about collecting up some of my most memorable rant-like Whatever entries into convenient book form, and since I won’t have another book out this year until at least September, now seems an excellent time to do it.

So behold! Rant: Collected Ventings 1999 – 2004 — Five years and 284 pages of lightly-edited online bile, now on sale through my CafePress shop, for the outrageous vanity press cost of $16.95 ($15.28 of which goes directly to CafePress. This is the peril of the Publish-on-Demand cost structure).

The book is loaded with most of my most famous rantings, including the following classics:

* I Hate Your Politics
* How to Write Hate Mail
* Leviticans
* Even More Long-Winded (But Practical) Writing Advice

As well as my various bashings of creationists, Confederates, the childfree, conservatives, squishy Salon-reading liberals and anyone else who has aroused my wrath and ire over the last half decade. What it doesn’t feature are my various nice and light Whatevers — no, this is all about outgassing. Which is what I titled it Rant. I figure truth in advertising counts for something.

Why go the CafePress vanity publishing route? Well, because — and not to put too fine a point on it — it’s not a very commercial book. The people who are going to be interested in owning it are the people who know me and/or the people who already read the site. There are several thousand of the latter, which is nice, but it’s probably not enough to convince a publishing house to bother. My non-fiction agent informs me that basically the only books of columns and essays that actually make any money are written by Dave Barry, so a collection of entries by a mostly-unknown fellow venting on the Web is likely to do dramatically less business.

Fair enough. As I’m fond of saying, I’m in the fortunate position of not having to do everything strictly for the money. And in any event, I’ve sold six books already, so I don’t have to worry about whether it’s a “real” book or not. This is entirely a vanity sort of thing — low-volume but also low-risk, since I’m not required to lay out any cash to make it happen. I’ve not violated the holiest dictum of professional writing, which is “money flows to the writer.” Should any money flow here, it’ll flow in my direction. And that’s the important thing.

I should note that putting these Whatevers into book form doesn’t mean I’m taking them down off the site. No, everything in the book is on the site and will likely remain so. As I said, this isn’t a fantastically commerical endeavor — it’s mostly a way to let interested folk read me away from their computer screens.

So if you’ve ever wanted my rantings in book form, here you go. Enjoy! It also makes a lovely gift for dads and grads (or if you go the one-day shipping route, for moms, too). I’ll be interested to see how it does.

Ted at it Again, Again, Again

For some reason I appear to be the guy online who gets to be Ted Rall’s Keeper, since any time he writes something outrageously controversial I get e-mail going “See what your friend has done now? What do you think about that? Huh? huh? huh?” This time around it’s the cartoon about Pat Tillman that’s got everyone worked up, and people want to know what I think about it and about Ted doing it. Fine.

Cartoon first: It’s not my thing. I differ from Ted on my opinion of the morality and the goals of the war in Afghanistan, so this is not terribly surprising. However, even if I did agree with Ted about the morals of that particular war, I’d suggest that even those who fight in a war of dubious morality can fight well and with honor — and indeed be heroes. This is why, for example, that even though I continually note how evil the Confederacy was, I can also note that many of those who fought for the Confederacy did so honorably. I don’t equate the recent occupation of Afghanistan with the Confederacy, and Pat Tillman, from what I understand, died trying to save his squadmates under attack, for which he received a posthumous Silver Star. For that action alone, “hero” is not a bad description of Tillman. So for my money Ted’s wrong here.

Ted next: People, look. I don’t know why any of you are surprised at this point that Ted’s going to take a whack at sensitive areas. He’s been doing it for well over a decade now; he’s going to keep on doing it until he keels over at his desk, pen in hand. He’s a superlefty who is not shy in his opinions and certainly doesn’t mind antagonizing people. This isn’t a defense of Ted; I’m merely noting a fact. This is his business, and he’s good at it. By all means, rail against him and support boycotts of outlets that syndicate his work if you believe it is going to have some sort of effect. If I were you, however, I wouldn’t labor under the illusion that you’re going to shame him into silence, directly or indirectly. It’s a big country. There are too many media outlets, even if you just count the ones on the left. And on either side of the political spectrum there’s no lack of opportunity for those with extreme views. I mean, hell. Ann Coulter keeps managing to scrape up enough dough to eat and hang clothes on her frame. You think Ted’s not going to be able to do the same?

Also, I’d note that before he was a cartoonist, Ted worked in investment banking. So conservatives may want to ask whether it’s worth it to drive him out of cartooning. He just might end up handling your investments.

I do have a couple of comments to make to all the people who call Ted a coward and declare that they’d fight him if they saw him. On the latter, Ted’s not a small fellow, nor does he run from things in my experience. And he’s extraordinarily litigious. If you’re thinking of throwing a punch, don’t expect Ted to fold like a liberal sissy man; he’s likely to fight back. And after he does, he’ll be happy to sue your ass for damages and keep the suit going until the very heat death of the universe. So if you’re going to make that punch, make sure you can take the hit.

On the former, unlike most of the rest of us, Ted’s actually been to Afghanistan, both before this recent war and during it. He didn’t have to go to Afghanistan, and not a few of us who knew him told him that he was insane to go. But he felt that he needed to go and be a witness to what was happening there. At one point in his most recent stay he came one doorknob turn from being shot and likely killed. There are many things Ted may be, negative and positive, but I guarantee you that “coward” is not one of them.

Pragmatic Idealist

I was doing one of my daily Technorati ego surfs when I noticed this new blog, which says that it will match up bloggers of various political stripes and have them debate, Iron Chef style, for the edification of the masses. After which they’ll be judged by whomever the judges are on their style and delivery and whatnot. No word on whether there will be fabulous prizes, although I somehow doubt there will be.

What interests me is not the “Iron Blog” concept, which I think is a little shaky; one has to wonder what the advantage of going to someone else’s blog to snipe and argue is when one can just as easily do it on one’s own site, without the artificial restrictions imposed by rules — i.e., freeform venting which is what makes blogging so much fun in the first place. Especially if there are, in fact, no prizes involved.

No, what interests me is that whomever it is running the site has created two blogrolls, one for lefties and one for righties, and I am located on the right side of the blogroll. Anyone who reads the site on a regular basis should find this amusing, given my open disdain of the GOP and my kneejerk (and not entirely fair) mental classification of conservatives of any stripe as people who primarily wish to rationalize their own fear and greed. The reason I suspect I’m on the right side of this fellow’s toteboard is that that he lumps libertarians with conservatives, which is a correct pairing, to the extent that functionally speaking your average libertarian’s goal of being left alone dovetails into the conservative’s goal of dismantling government so no one can stop their nefarious plans for global domination.

A lot of my personal opinions dovetail with libertarians — I too wish to be left alone and encourage others to leave other people alone as well — so I suspect this is why I’m on the right side of that blogroll. But this is not the same as saying that I am a libertarian. Without getting too much into detail about it, the reason I’m not a libertarian is that it’s a political philosophy that can function only if the average person wants to let other people do their thing, and the fact is most people don’t. That’s because most people don’t trust other people to be smart/honest/noble/whatever enough not to screw things up for the rest of us.

The reason for that, alas, is that most people aren’t smart/honest/noble/whatever enough not to mess things up. People are often dumb, greedy short-term thinkers who don’t give a crap about you as long as they get theirs, or they’ve got their eye on a long-term plan for global domination for their god and/or ideology. Frequently they’re both, which is a lot of fun to deal with. Now, I’d like to think most people will do the best thing given time, education and the opportunity to look at things long-term. But simply as a matter of experience, it’s nice to be able to rein them in from time to time. I’m not an optimist when it comes to people and their behaviors. So no libertarian cookie for me, I’m afraid.

My politics are neither left nor right in any consistent fashion; I’m not conservative, or liberal, or libertarian, or whatever. Chart me on a traditional political map and the only real conclusion you’ll come to is that I need medication for my multiple personalities. I like to think my politics are on the “z” axis, which is defined by idealism — what we’d like to believe people would do — and pragmatism — what we need to have people to do so that the country is a reasonable place to live. The real world is rather more in need of the pragmatic approach at the moment, and I’m fine with that. I’m an idealistic pragmatic (and on my good days, a pragmatic idealist). No wonder I write science fiction.

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