In which Erin is Awesome

So, last week we took a cruise, which was awesome.

On of the guests this year was fantasy author and awesome human N. K. Jemisin.

Erin and I attended her reading last Wednesday, which was a port day. During the reading, the crew had a drill that involved overhead announcements — which, unfortunately, also cut off the mic Ms Jemisin was using, interrupting the reading.

Over and over. It got comical, really, but Ms Jemisin persevered and finished the reading.

Well, Erin being Erin, she decided that Ms Jemisin should be rewarded for her grit here, and set about making some sort of trophy for her using materials she could find on the boat. That was somewhat limiting, but since one of the bits of swag for the cruise was a stuffed dolphin in a fez, and extras were available, an amusing and on-topic base was quickly identified. Erin festooned it with shiny things from the gaming room, and we gave it to her after dinner the next night. She was very pleased.

And, as it turns out, remains pleased about it now.

Here’s more on the Apple vs. FBI situation

Security expert Bruce Schneier weighs in. This is a guy who absolutely knows what he’s talking about:

The FBI’s demands are specific to one phone, which might make its request seem reasonable if you don’t consider the technological implications: Authorities have the phone in their lawful possession, and they only need help seeing what’s on it in case it can tell them something about how the San Bernardino shooters operated. But the hacked software the court and the FBI wants Apple to provide would be general. It would work on any phone of the same model. It has to.

Make no mistake; this is what a backdoor looks like. This is an existing vulnerability in iPhone security that could be exploited by anyone.


What the FBI wants to do would make us less secure, even though it’s in the name of keeping us safe from harm. Powerful governments, democratic and totalitarian alike, want access to user data for both law enforcement and social control. We cannot build a backdoor that only works for a particular type of government, or only in the presence of a particular court order.

Either everyone gets security or no one does.


Hey Chief Heathen: Apple, Encryption, and You

As you’ve probably heard, the FBI really, really wants Apple to help them unlock an iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernadino shooters. A court has actually ordered that Apple do so; in response, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a public reply (in addition to immediate appeals); you can (and should) read that letter in its entirety, because in it Cook lays out very clearly what’s at stake here.

All this is very confusing to lay people, though, I’m sure. We nerds have been up to our asses in crypto for a long time, and understand how critical it is to modern life. You use strong crypto every day, even if you don’t realize it — every time you see that little “lock” icon in your browser, you’re using it, and (to a first approximation) your browser session is locked up tight — otherwise, online commerce wouldn’t be possible, right?

Obviously, a phone is different from your shopping cart at Amazon, but there are lots of points here that are still being obscured by poor media coverage that has, in general, been entirely too deferential to law enforcement and the government. Let me lay out a few things for you, in simple terms, to help you make sense of it all, because whether you realize it or not this case affects you.

First, you need to understand something about encryption itself.

Properly implemented encryption is effectively unbreakable with current technology. (I could explain why, but it would make this post WAAAAY too long.) Not even the NSA can break it; the computing power doesn’t exist yet. It might, in the future (google “quantum computing”), but right now it’s safe and secure.

That’s exactly why law enforcement is so up in arms about wanting back doors built into things: precisely because they can’t break into some systems or data files if they’ve been properly encrypted. Think about it: the cops don’t care how strong your locks are, because they can always break your door. They care about encryption because, done right, they have no recourse.

Second, you need to understand that encryption isn’t the whole picture here.

There’s also device security, and device security at Apple is in an ongoing improvement process. You have probably seen by now stories about how “well, they helped cops BEFORE, why won’t they do it now?” These are wilfully misleading stories authored by deliberately ignorant people who are carrying water for the anti-crypto squad. Just because it was easy or trivial for Apple to unlock a phone in 2008 doesn’t mean it’s just as easy or just as trivial to do so now, because every new iPhone and new version of iOS improves the platform. It is accurate to say that Apple likely views the ease with which a non-owner (Apple) could unlock prior phones as a flaw to be fixed, and are behaving accordingly.

Good, because the only secure device is one that only its owner can unlock.

Third, Cook’s assertion that the FBI’s request would make all similar phones vulnerable is absolutely and unequivocally true.

The cops are demanding, basically, that Apple create a tool that will circumvent the security of the iPhone in question. Such a tool, once created, will almost certainly get leaked and used by other parties — like foreign intelligence people, or criminals, or repressive regimes.

Law enforcement loves to suggest that such bypass tools or (worse) built-in back doors will only ever be used by the “good guys,” but that doesn’t even pass the risibility test. Even supposed “good guys” overstep their authority with astonishing regularity, and law enforcement in the US is absolutely no exception. “Trust us!” is a bullshit argument.

Fourth, don’t give this mouse a cookie.

Iif Apple is forced to do this, now, to this particular generation of iOS and iPhone, then you can be sure that law enforcement will insist they do so (or attempt to do so) for later iterations of the platform. (This is one reason Apple is working so hard to make the devices secure and private, even against attacks from Apple itself.) We cannot let cops — who, let’s be honest, would be happier with a master key to all locks, all phones, all safety deposit boxes, etc., because what do you have to hide? — dictate privacy and security for the rest of us, and Apple realizes this.

Fifth, there is no ticking-time-bomb situation here.

Thus far, terrorist tradecraft is best described as “epically shitty.” The Paris attackers used normal SMS, which is incredibly insecure. They used regular tappable phones. But even if they started using secure methods, signals intelligence isn’t how you track these people. You need to chase them and catch them and prevent attacks through normal police work; you can’t expect an online dragnet of messaging traffic to do much for you (and, indeed, it clearly doesn’t work, even putting aside the privacy concerns). The FBI know who did this. They have reams of other evidence. They’re using this case, and the spectre of TERRORISM TERRORISM TERRORISM, to try and stifle real security for ordinary Americans. There’s no reason to do that.

Stand with Apple, even if you prefer Android. Stand with Apple, even if you hate the walled garden. Stand with Apple, because they are absolutely the only player in this market who have absolutely no interest in analyzing what you do online and selling it to other people. They’ve been increasingly verbal in their commitment to user privacy, and have proved it with the ongoing security improvements in the iPhone. Now they’re putting their money where their mouth is in a big way, on a big stage, in this particular case. Good for Tim Cook, and good for them, and good for US, because it’s a certainty that the Feds would much rather have us insecure.

As security expert Bruce Schneier puts it:

Today I walked by a television showing CNN. The sound was off, but I saw an aerial scene which I presume was from San Bernardino, and the words “Apple privacy vs. national security.” If that’s the framing, we lose. I would have preferred to see “National security vs. FBI access.”

He’s right.

More from Rep. Ted Lieu, and more background on why Apple is so pro-crypto (that bit’s long, but you should read it).

Aaaah, so THAT’S why this week’s X-Files was so much better

The writer and director, Darin Morgan, also wrote for the original series, and was responsible for two of the very best episodes of the show: Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ and the Emmy-winning Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, both of which are brilliant.

In particular, note that both “Chung” and this week’s episode feature retelling of events from multiple perspectives as well as a certain over-arching sardonic and self-aware humor. (Did you notice Mulder’s ringtone is the X-Files’ theme music?)

Wikipedia link; more over at IO9, which also notes a few Easter eggs — the biggest of which is actually in the comments: the character Guy Mann is dressed exactly like Carl Kolchak, from the show that inspired Chris Cater in the 1970s.

Song Exploder’s Bowie Playlist

First, Song Exploder is brilliant, and you should be paying attention to it.

Second, this feature has a number of musicians discussing particular Bowie songs, and includes John Roderick on Space Oddity (reproduced below). This is awesome because, of course, Roderick has a lost-astronaut song of his own that I’ve seen him play live.

Space Oddity is the original and still the best lost astronaut song, released only a few days before the Apollo 11 launch in 1969. It was originally a current events song! Maybe even a novelty song, if the events in question weren’t so solemn. All the more of an accomplishment, then, that it still sounds futuristic and provokes anxiety 47 years later. In 1969 space travel seemed poised to become mundane–we would soon all be living on space stations, wearing jumpsuits and enjoying science drinks–but Bowie sided with Kubrick that, in addition to metaphysical magic, suburbia, celebrity, and product placement and malfunction would follow us to the stars. Like so much of Bowie’s music, Space Oddity has themes and sounds that in less adroit hands would be corny. The countdown at the top of the song and the horn swell “rocket ship taking off” are so literal you almost roll your eyes, but Bowie’s voice is so urgent you lose all desire for detachment. It’s hard for us now to imagine the emotional moment of 1969, with all the war, violence, unrest and upheaval taking place. The world-historical venture into space, armed with science and human confidence, wasn’t yet a fait accompli. We still could have fucked it up, left dead astronauts on the lunar surface, surrendered to the impossibility of Kennedy’s hubristic challenge and Vietnammed ourselves into a death throe. Instead, we succeeded, and Bowie more than any other artist made outer space the dominant theme of his work for many years after. His persona allowed him to comment on contemporary events from a place that felt like objectivity. Bowie saw us like an alien might, but he loved us and got bloody with us because he was trapped here, or emigrated here on his own, so he took our side. Bowie screeched and squawked and filled his music with unearthly noises and we accepted it because we were so flattered that this metallic space Phoenix was interested in talking to us. The appeal of the Rolling Stones was that you were supposed to feel lucky some cool junkies invited you to listen to their sex party through a keyhole, but Bowie had a message about the salvation of humanity. He seemed to be telling us that the looming apocalypse was survivable? Escapable, maybe? Maybe not, though. Maybe we should just quit fighting and have sex a lot until the fire tornados come? Maybe Major Tom experienced a malfunction and his spacecraft was lost, but more likely Major Tom severed his own tether for reasons known only to him. Maybe he saw something, or someone was waiting out there for him, or he realized the futility of our seeking, or he found what we’re all seeking in the eternal quiet.

More Bowie bits you shouldn’t miss

From the RS tribute issue:

  • Trent Reznor’s comments include Bowie helping him get sober: “I knew. I knew you’d do that. I knew you’d come out of that.“. You should absolutely click through to the 1994 tour performance wherein he and Bowie do “Hurt” together. (How the fuck did I miss that tour?)

  • Longtime Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey — who also became his “Under Pressure” duet partner — was more or less plucked from near-obscurity to tour with him; her memories of him are here. On this one, don’t miss the video of “Under Pressure.”

This time, I’m gonna make it to Austin

(tl;dr? Here’s the link. Thanks.)

Here comes the 2016 MS150 Pitch!

Here we go again! It’s time for Chet to ride to Austin — well, almost; it’s in 90 days or so (4/16-17). And that means it’s time for me to hassle you about fundraising again. Many of you have been extremely generous for this cause in the prior three years, and I hope that you’ll feel similarly generous this year.

What the hell are you on about, Heathen?

The MS150 is one of the largest — if not THE largest — charity rides in the country. Come April, something more than 15,000 riders will take off from Houston in a two-day marathon ride to Austin, some 165 miles away. I’ll cover 100 miles on day one, spend the night in La Grange, and then either 65 or 75 on day two, depending on which route I choose.

And when I say big, I mean big: last year, there were 13,000 riders, and we raised over $20 million. Yeah, it’s like that.

Wait. You’re doing this again?

Yep. Here’s why:

I’m sure you all recall that late 2014 and early 2015 kinda sucked here at the Farmer household. I had a bad crash last November, resulting in the dramatic-looking x-ray above, followed by a long period of healing and rehab. I was confined to a walker from November 20 until late February; I used a cane for months after that. And, obviously, I missed the 150 last year.

(Well, let’s be clear: with your help, I actually DID do the most important part of the 150: fundraising. We — all of you plus me — took first place in fundraising on the Karbach Brewing team, and that’s something we should all be proud of. But I didn’t get to ride.)

You’ll be really slow this time, right?

After spending all that time off the bike, I took my first short ride in late March. I was slow and tentative, and had no endurance, and that sucked out loud. I joke that I lost 40 pounds riding bikes and drinking beer, and that’s the truth, but part of that was riding hard and often. I went from a 250 pound guy who could barely get to 18 miles an hour to a 210 pound guy who cruised with the hot rod pack at 28 or 30 down Washington Avenue. Coming back and being slow was hard.

But I did it anyway, and I kept doing it, and by July I was finally able to notch 100 miles a week again, and I’ve never looked back. (Well, except to check for traffic.) All told, I rode nearly 2800 miles in 2015, which I think isn’t too bad for a guy who spent the first quarter unable to walk. I didn’t do it by myself, obviously — I had lots of help and encouragement, and a huge part of that was from my teammates at Karbach.

Now, in January of 2016, I’m a stronger rider now than I was last November. I’m excited about that. After sitting out last year, making it to Austin this time around will be especially meaningful to me.

That’s cool and all, but it’s not the point. This is the point.

I’ve written to you before about MS, and about how it can sneak up on its victims in pernicious and devastating ways, but to be completely honest I don’t think I really appreciated what that could be like until I spent some time with my mobility compromised. My experience wasn’t a perfect analog — I had great care in one of the best medical centers in the world; there was never any real doubt that I’d make a full recovery barring serious complications — but understanding that intellectually is a long way from internalizing it, especially when you can’t do the things you love, or climb the stairs in your house, or help your spouse with the housework, or even walk.

I got better. (Better, stronger, faster…) My life today is more or less just as it was before the accident. I’m lucky. Some MS patients see remission, but some don’t — and even those in remission live with the knowledge that their personal demon could re-emerge and re-imprison them at almost any time.

I said I did this to drink beer and lose weight, and I think in the first couple years that was more true than not. The fundraising part of the event was a minor part. After all, I didn’t know anyone with MS, and had no real understanding of what it could be like. The 150 is just a thing lots of Houston riders do.

Then, in 2013, friends asked me to ride for their sister, or friend, or cousin, or coworker. That makes it more real in a big hurry, but not as real as spending a few months on a walker.

The ride is secondary. I’ll put in the miles anyway, because I love riding, because it’s good for me, and most of all because I know what it’s like not to be able to. The MS150 is about MS, about raising money for MS research, and about helping those people affected by it. Chet riding to Austin is a sideshow; what we do here, with the link above and below, is the main event — and it’s the part I need you for.

Be on my team.

Please give. If you’re able, please increase your gift from last year. We are all of us very, very fortunate — maybe none of as as much as I.

The direct donation link is

Also, in the past, folks have given me names of those close to them who suffer from MS; I write them on my race bib, and find them particularly inspiring after 50 or 60 miles. If you’d like to add a name to the list, just let me know. I’d be proud to.

Why we still need health care reform

Joe Biden’s son Beau died last year from a brain tumor. He was, at one point, concerned that cognitive damage would force him to resign his office, which would have made him unemployed and uninsured. It is no secret at this point that the Vice President and the President are close friends, and their relationship included frank discussions of Beau’s health, and the challenges that might arise, and how they might meet them, including the idea that they’d sell their house to pay for Beau’s care. (Remember, Biden is probably the poorest man to ever be Vice President.)

President Obama would have none of it, and told Biden he’d pay for it if need be.

So, two things.

First, it’s great that the Vice President has a rich and powerful friend who could have helped his family.

Second, how incredibly fucked up is it that even someone in Beau Biden’s position would have needed this kind of help just to get care?

Single payer. Now.

(h/t: sp0ka.)

This is probably obvious, but it bears pointing out: He planned it.

Bowie’s exit — the release of his album only days before his death, the video of “Lazarus,” the timing of it all — is in no way an accident, and was absolutely planned. His producer confirms it.

A commenter on Metafilter calls it a “nothing-but-net exit,” which to me just about sums it up.

You should never doubt that he was, in addition to so much else, an unstoppable conceptual bastard.

“Look up here / I’m in Heaven”

David Bowie has died. He had turned 69 on Friday.

Chris Onstad wrote this when Michael Jackson died. It’s as on point today as it was then:

“He was your Elvis, and when your Elvis dies, so does the private lie that someday you will be young once again, and feel at capricious intervals the weightlessness of a joy that is unchecked by the injuries of experience and failure.

“Welcome to the only game in town.”

It hardly needs to be said, but in the pantheon of musical influence in the last half century, Bowie has few peers. For me, it’s probably the hardest musical loss since Lou Reed. It might get loud in the office today. I suggest you go and do likewise.

Here’s a start, from 1978. “Heroes” has always been a favorite of mine, even though for the last 13 it reminds me of a wake (Steve Barnett’s, 13 years ago this month). That seems appropriate today.

Hey Chief Heathen! Talk to me about streaming music vs. purchased music!

Over on Facebook, I ran into this article that tries to make the case for buying physical media, but fails utterly because the author doesn’t understand the difference between purchased digital music and streamed digital music. It seems to me that this is probably a broad problem, so let me try to clear it up for you.

The Argument

In the linked article, the author says CD or vinyl beats “digital music” on four fronts. He or she asserts that:

  • It better supports the band, because streaming services pay so little;
  • You get security of ownership — the music will always be playable, and you don’t have to keep paying for it;
  • CD/vinyl gets you better quality than digital; and
  • Collecting is fun.

The author’s main problem is that the piece conflates the notion of purchasing digital music with the idea of paying for a streaming service. In fact, almost the whole piece is really about buying music in any form vs. paying for a service, but the author doesn’t appear to understand that he’s missed something big. I get that people misunderstand this stuff, though, so let me try to fill in the gaps.

Purchasing vs. Streaming and the Issue of Artist Compensation

If you BUY music from a digital source, like iTunes (but not Apple Music) or Amazon, you own those files, and the band gets paid. They have no copy protection on them, and you can copy them to as many devices as you like, make backups, burn CDs, or even give copies to other people — which would be wrong, but it is possible. (N.B. that movies and TV purchased from iTunes definitely DO have DRM on them; these comments apply only to music. Exercise caution when buying video from iTunes, and do the mental math considering it more a rental than a purchase.)

There’s no real advantage to physical media when it comes to actual music ownership. There might be a small advantage to the artist if you buy direct from them at a local show or wherever, where I assume they get a bigger cut, but that’s a corner case.

It IS absolutely true that, with streaming services like Spotify, you have to keep paying to keep listening. But if you buy the music and download it, you don’t; it’s always yours. It’s also true that streaming services traditionally pay artists very, very little compared to any kind of purchase, which is a good reason to avoid them and buy your music.

But what about quality?

The quality argument has similar problems. Downloaded digital files — at least from iTunes — are at such a high sampling rate, and in such good formats, that it’s extraordinarily unlikely that anyone could tell them from CD source in a blind test. (In fact, it’s never even been done with 256Kbps Mp3, and the AAC files from Apple are better than that.) There’s no audio upside, even theoretically, for physical media — and this is before you factor in the fact that most people don’t use equipment that would expose the difference between even lower-bitrate sampling and CD source. You won’t hear it in your car, or on crappy default headphones, or on a tiny Bluetooth speaker.

Again, though, the author’s ding definitely DOES apply to streaming music, because the quality is only as good as your connection, and will be degraded if there’s insufficient bandwidth (like a YouTube video, but with audio). This is definitely a reason to avoid streaming services (and I do, for the most part), but it’s not a reason to avoid downloaded digital music.

The Collector Angle

Collecting is the only area here where I can maybe see the appeal of physical media, but speaking as a guy with a 30 year collection, let me add that at some point, adding additional physical items to store that you don’t need to have to hear the music becomes unattractive. I love that music I buy from iTunes doesn’t come with something I have to put on a shelf or in a cabinet. (I mean, have you SEEN my living room?)

Is there a reason to buy physical media in 2016?

Yes. Sadly, though, the article misses the reason I do sometimes still do it: because I like to support my local record store. Even sadder, the reason it’s not in the article is almost certainly because so few people still live in a place that even has the option. There’s no joy in browsing the CDs at Wal-Mart or Best Buy.

So why would anyone use a streaming service?

Services like Apple Music or Spotify or Rhapsody or whatever have all the drawbacks listed above (no ownership, less compensation to the artists, poorer quality), but they do provide something people value: enormous libraries of music. Apple Music boasts like 37 million tracks, which is way more than I have in my library, and I’m a crazy person. Paying a fee gets you access to those tracks, but at a pretty significant tradeoff.

In the past, I maintained a Spotify subscription for pre-purchase sampling and earworm-remediation purposes, but I’ve discontinued that. I wasn’t using it for anything I couldn’t accomplish with, say, a YouTube search, and I didn’t feel good about supporting a service that is allowed to compensate artists so poorly.

Mileage may vary on this, but at the end of the day, I’d rather have my music be MY music. On that, at least, the author and I agree.

Dept. of Unlikely Name Collisions, Jazz Subdivision

Several years ago — and most likely via NPR — I became aware of a jazz bassist named Avishai Cohen.

This morning, a really nice video of him and his band playing was in my feeds; you can watch it here, and I suggest you do (ideally with headphones).

As I listened, I tried to go to Wikipedia for a background refresher on Cohen, and found something somewhat surprising.

I already thought it unusual that Cohen is an Israeli-born jazz musician; maybe it’s because I’m a middle-aged white man, but I don’t think of Israelis as being terribly well represented in jazz. So imagine my surprise when my Wikipedia search brought me this:

Avishai cohen

Yup. In addition to the Israeli-born jazz bassist Avishai Cohen (b. 1970,, there’s also an Israeli-born jazz trumpeter named Avishai Cohen (b. 1978,, and they appear unrelated.

Neat. Maybe what the jazz world needs now is a collaboration?

Holiday Photo Tip!

When using your fisheye, be careful about the placement of your hand on the camera body. Just because your hand is behind the lens doesn’t mean it’s not in the shot.


Posted in Pix

We are a dumb, dumb, dumb country

America is too dumb for TV news:

Until recently, the narrative of stories like [Trump's fantasy of dancing muslims in New Jersey on 9/11] has been predictable. If a candidate said something nuts, or seemingly not true, an army of humorless journalists quickly dug up all the facts, and the candidate ultimately was either vindicated, apologized, or suffered terrible agonies.

Al Gore for instance never really recovered from saying, “I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” True, he never said he invented the Internet, as is popularly believed, but what he did say was clumsy enough that the line followed him around like an STD for the rest of his (largely unsuccessful) political life.

That dynamic has broken down this election season. Politicians are quickly learning that they can say just about anything and get away with it. Along with vindication, apology and suffering, there now exists a fourth way forward for the politician spewing whoppers: Blame the backlash on media bias and walk away a hero.


Trump, meanwhile, has been through more of these beefs than one can count, even twice blabbing obvious whoppers in live televised debates. Once he claimed the Trans-Pacific Partnership was designed to help China, moving Rand Paul to point out that China isn’t in the TPP. Another time he denied that he once called Marco Rubio “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator.” The line was on Trump’s website as he spoke.

In all of these cases, the candidates doubled or tripled down when pestered by reporters and fact-checkers and insisted they’d been victimized by biased media. A great example of how candidates have handled this stuff involved Fiorina.

The former HP chief keeps using a roundly debunked line originally dug up by the Romney campaign, about how 92 percent of the jobs lost under Obama belonged to women. The Romney campaign itself ditched the line because it was wrong even in 2012. When confronted this year, Fiorina simply said, “If the liberal media doesn’t like the data, maybe the liberal media doesn’t like the facts.”


This is a horrible thing to have to say about one’s own country, but this story makes it official. America is now too dumb for TV news.

It’s our fault. We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.

The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.

What we call right-wing and liberal media in this country are really just two different strategies of the same kind of nihilistic lizard-brain sensationalism. The ideal CNN story is a baby down a well, while the ideal Fox story is probably a baby thrown down a well by a Muslim terrorist or an ACORN activist. Both companies offer the same service, it’s just that the Fox version is a little kinkier.

We are completely doomed.

No, I’ll bet Dick Cheney doesn’t think a Muslim ban is Un-American

I saw this today at Talking Points Memo:

Screen Shot 2015 12 08 at 8 51 57 AM

There’s zero chance this is a principled stand by Cheney. Make absolutely no mistake here, and remember that Cheney is a guy who thinks torture, indefinite detention at the will of the state, and invading unrelated countries in response to nonstate terror attacks are all fine and dandy.

No. This is about trying to ice Trump, because now the GOP establishment is well and truly terrified because he keeps not going away. If Trump is the nominee, they’re fucked, because most people won’t vote for this preening fascist blowhard, and the Democratic nominee wins in a walk. If Trump survives long enough in the polls to contemplate a third party run, their base is split and they’re fucked, because without every single angry reactionary white vote, the Democratic nominee wins in a walk.

Here’s the thing, though: This is a bed the GOP made. I’ve been making this point for a while, but the most succinct formulation of it is probably from Wil Wheaton on Twitter:

The GOP’s been laying the foundation for Trump since Nixon’s Southern Strategy and Reagan’s Welfare Queens. None of this should be a surprise.

If you spend 40 years building your politics on fear and hate of the Other, you shouldn’t be surprised if you eventually get a candidate like Trump that’s willing to say and do horrifying things to please the increasingly agitated core.

Books of 2015, #27: Deal Breaker, by Harlen Coben

(Yes, we’re going backward.)

No. Just no. Longtime readers know I have an affection for series detective works (Jack Reacher, Spenser), so occasionally I audition a new line given that Robert Parker is dead and I read way faster than Lee Child can write.

Deal Breaker was not a successful audition.

What a disappointing mishmash! We grabbed this as an (unabridged) audiobook from the library for our Thanksgiving drive, and holy crap it’s a mess. The plot’s all over the place, and the protagonist — with the hilariously unlikely name Myron Bolitar — is completely Mary-Sue territory. He’s a former Duke basketball star! Who won the NCAA! Twice in four years! And was drafted by the Celtics, only to suffer a career-ending injury in a preseason game!

So he became an FBI agent — during which time he apparently did Big Important things that were Off The Record and SEKRIT — and a lawyer! And a sports agent (because obviously)! And a firetruck! And a millionaire! And a lion tamer!

Ok, I made up those last three, but the rest are true. Really.


Oh, it gets better: his best pal is a seemingly milquetoast old-money finance geek (“Windsor Horne Lockwood III,” we are told, with no hint of irony) who is apparently also a former sekrit agent man, only despite being of utterly average build it’s the little guy who’s the scary unbeatable badass and not the six-foot-four former professional athlete. Predictably, too, Lockwood has a questionable moral compass kept in check by his complete loyalty to Bolitar.

It’s also clear that Coben really, really loves Robert Parker’s Spenser novels. Bolitar says things constantly that I’m sure Coben thinks of as clever-like-Spenser (including literary quotes, which is just a bridge too far), but it invariably comes off as badly-executed mimicry. The Spenser analogs keep coming, too: obviously Lockwood is meant to be an adaptation of Spenser’s morally ambiguous pal Hawk, and just as obviously Bolitar’s unfeasibly attractive paramour is patterned on Spenser’s lover Susan.

I get that, if you’re working in detective fiction, it’s gonna be hard to get out from under Parker’s shadow. But it’s totally doable; here, it seems like Coben isn’t even trying (or, worse, it’s a deliberate attempt to capture some of the same readers — not for nothing, I expect, are Bolitar’s reactions to things around sex and women something more suited to someone decades older than Coben himself).

The whole thing is weak sauce, and best avoided. OTOH, it was free (yay libraries!) and helped pass time on I-10, so in that context it wasn’t completely without merit — but those points are kinda like saying a wine “pours well.”

Books of 2015, #28: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

(Yeah, I’m jumping forward.)

Aurora is the tale of a set of interstellar colonists sent from Earth around 500 years from now, bound for the Tau Ceti system. Because this is hard SF set in a near-future real-world, there’s no magic propulsion: they’re cruising along at a pretty good clip — about a tenth of c — but Tau Ceti is 12 light years away. At that pace it’ll still take far more than a human lifetime to reach their destination.

Enter the idea of a generation ship. Generation ships are science fiction “arks” — you load them up with a critical mass of people, resources, animals, soil, etc., and establish a sealed and self-sustaining biosphere in the ship. People are born, live their lives on the ship, have children, grow old, and die, all in transit. The original volunteers will never see the destination, but their descendants might!

It’s an interesting notion, and is by no means unique to Aurora. Check this subset of the Wikipedia article, but you’ve probably seen it before in Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky and episodes of the original Star Trek as well as Voyager. Earth’s wasteful, bloated humans are hanging out on a generation ship in Wall-E, and SyFy’s (pretty awful) Ascension was set on a simulated generation ship that the inhabitants thought was real.


I read this because the notion of a near-future hard-SF interstellar colonization story was interesting to me, especially if it was handled with the same deft hand that Stanley brought to his Mars trilogy twenty years ago. (And regardless of what I say here about Aurora, the Mars books are solid and fascinating.)

Boy howdy was I disappointed.

Candidly, this a bad book. Robinson believes — probably correctly — that the whole idea of a generation ship is inherently and fatally flawed, and that the very idea of dooming subsequent generations to a life lived in space is ethically dodgy at the least. On these points, he’s not wrong. What’s wrong here is that the book is basically a 480-page polemic with only occasional bursts of action or dialog. There is zero character development to speak of, presumably because it would’ve gotten in the way of his Galtian rants about the inevitable collapse of synthetic biospheres or whatever.

Also? Remember those parts in The Martian where Weir goes on at length about the science involved in this-or-that survival project undertaking by Watney? He was dinged for it by some people (not me), and the rightly elided most of it from the film (because films are not books). Robinson goes all in on those sorts of pursuits — about ecology on the starship, about micromanaging the starship during maintenance, and most egregiously for pages and pages and pages (often without paragraph breaks) about the orbital mechanics involved late in the book. What Weir did worked on paper because the book was from Watney’s perspective, and we needed to know his thinking. It fails here for a myriad of reasons, including the overwhelming volume of the repeated technical info dumps, and also the amount of story and development that they shove out. (Seriously: the text is so bloated that you could tell the actual story here in a short magazine article.)

It’s a long, lazy, and fundamentally irritating book. Absolutely skip it.

Let’s not be afraid. Let’s be Americans.

Let’s talk about refugees, because God knows everyone else is.

The collective freakout on the right about the idea that we might, maybe, accept a few thousand displaced women and children (which they are, mostly) is perhaps the most embarrassing and depressing excess of the modern American GOP yet. It is horrifying in its lack of empathy and logical inconsistency. It is terrifying in its xenophobia and appeal to fear as a transparent politial ploy. It is so ridiculous that, if it weren’t for the fact that people will die as a result, it would be goddamn hilarious.

It is also absurdly predictable that it seems the same folks apoplectic about the prospect of gay marriage are just as adamant that the refugees should stay away. These supposed Christians would cherry-pick Old Testament law (as they’re all presumably wearing blended fabrics and enjoying shrimp) to deny legal protections to their gay brothers and sisters while Christ was completely silent on the subject — but now that we have a situation that Jesus preached about repeatedly, they ignore Him (which isn’t entirely surprising; these folks are also typically opposed to social programs designed to aid the needy closer to home).

We are certainly not a Christian nation in any legal sense, but we do seem to enjoy thinking of ourselves as guided by Christian principles, at least in terms of charity — or, at least, that’s what we might say we aspire to. Except we aren’t, really, not when it counts. We are anti-Christian in our treatment of the needy, in our acceptance of those different from us, and in our willingness to choose lengthening our own tables instead of strengthening our doors when our neighbors are in need. “I got mine, you get yours” isn’t a Christian mantra.

Jesus taught very specifically on this subject, and with some frequency. The most famous instance is the parable of the Good Samaritan, taken from the Gospel of Luke (10:29-37):

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

There are no weasel words here. He is quite clear.

Remember, too, what He says in Matthew 25, which is even more explicit about what He expects of His followers:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

My point here is not that we should govern our nation according to the words attributed to Jesus because he was divine. We are not and should not be a theocracy. However, we have for pretty much our entire existence as a nation been the place that refugees came. Diaspora after diaspora have found homes and lives here when no such options existed for them in their homelands. They made us a stronger nation, because we are not homogenous. Even our origin story is about refugees — a fact that should be particularly clear this week.

God bless President Bartlett. Sure, he’s not a real President, but what he says above goes to the heart of who we should all want America to be. Reagan famously spoke of us being a “shining city on a hill,” a beacon of freedom and hope for those all over the world — but what sort of beacon can we really be if we’re too terrified to accept those huddled masses yearning to breathe free?

We have always struggled to live up to who we said we wanted to be, even from our beginnings in 1776. But we wrote them down, so we can keep referring to them: the idea that all people are created equal, and that all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is why our doors must remain open. We should be the example state, not the counter-example. We have spent much of the last 14 years in a state of perpetual freakout, but it’s time for that to STOP — not in the least because terrorism isn’t really a danger for Americans (statistically, bees are a bigger problem). By giving in to the baser impulses of fear and xenophobia, we do ISIS’ work for them; let’s not do that. Refuse to be terrorized, least of all by women and children.

I get that this isn’t easy with so many on TV telling you to be afraid. Remember that it’s easy to get people to pay attention to you when you say there’s danger, especially when you pin it on people who are different. Be strong. Be critical. And remember the point of terrorism: it’s right there in the name. Refuse to become the anti-foreigner freakout nation that ISIS wants to goad us into being. Every time a middle-eastern refugee puts down roots in the US, opens a small business, and raises his family here, it’s better than a thousand bombs when it comes to destabilizing and eradicating those jackasses. Every time we prove that we mean it when we say all people are created equal, and that all of us deserve the pursuit of happiness, we prove their worldview is a lie.

The shitstorm in the Middle East today will not get solved without bullets, I fear, but it also cannot be defeated by violence alone. We have to show people a better option. It’s an ideology based on poverty and despair, and my bet is that we can show folks a better path by embracing those in need, taking them to our collective chest, and making them part of our great American experiment.

I’ve said much of this before, in various Facebook comments in the past few weeks, but what really set me thinking this morning is a long piece in the October 26 New Yorker called “Ten Borders.” It’s the story of a young man’s protracted, difficult journey from Syria — which was collapsing around him — to Sweden, where he’s been welcomed as a refugee. What he endured to get there, and the risks he took, are staggering. Seriously, take the time to read it. You were probably born in a country that stayed safe, after all.

There are a few bits I want to share directly, though:

When Ghaith arrived in Sweden, an immigration officer recorded his fingerprints, ran the data through an E.U. database, and confirmed that he had not previously been processed in Europe [Note: this is about the Dublin Regulation]. “You are now under the custody of Sweden,” she told him. “Sweden will take care of you.” Ghaith subsequently attended an orientation session to learn, as he put it, “what Sweden owes to me and what I owe to Sweden.”


On the bus, Ghaith scrolled through music files on his phone. The Swedish national anthem started up, loud enough to turn heads. “I listen to it each morning,” Ghaith said, proudly.


An hour later, six more of Ghaith’s friends—all Syrian refugees whom he knew from law school or from Jdeidet Artouz—showed up carrying a grill, a bag of charcoal, and a three-foot hookah. They stripped to their underwear and prepared to go swimming. These were friends for life, Ghaith said, though he otherwise cared little for Syria anymore. Once his wife arrived, they would have children and he would raise them as Swedes. He didn’t care if his kids spoke Arabic. He added, in broken English, “I worship Sweden.”

And, finally:

Around the same time, Austrian authorities found an abandoned poultry truck with seventy-one dead refugees inside. Ghaith said that he couldn’t help but feel lucky: “I made it, while thousands of others didn’t. Some died on the way, some died in Syria. Every day, you hear about people drowning. Just think about how much every Syrian is suffering inside Syria to endure the suffering of this trip.” He paused. “In Greece, someone asked me, ‘Why take the chance?’ I said, ‘In Syria, there’s a hundred-per-cent chance that you’re going to die. If the chance of making it to Europe is even one per cent, then that means there is a one-per-cent chance of your leading an actual life.’”

Can you, as an American, read these words and be proud of how we are comporting ourselves during this crisis? I cannot. I am not. We are being ruled by small, petty, venal jackasses screaming on TV about how giving aid and comfort to victims of ISIS will somehow endanger us. It’s embarrassing and ridiculous. Fuck fear. The last 14 years have been a never-ending stream of fearmongering bullshit, and in the wake of it we have done terrible things that are absolutely anathema to the values we SAY we hold dear. Let’s fix that.

Virtually everyone who will read these words is descended from someone who left their original country and came to the US seeking a better life. That is, in a very literal sense, who we are. It’s what we’re made of. Let’s return to being that. It can only make us better.

Do not let the terrorists change who we are any more than they already have.

But how can I change what politicians are doing? What difference can I possibly make?

Glad you asked. Turns out, governors can’t close their states. Refugees are coming to your state, almost certainly, but will need help integrating and settling in. (If you’re local to me in Houston, this goes double — Houston is historically a popular refugee destination; it’s something that makes our city so awesome.) You can literally be the welcoming, helping hand by calling the folks at Refugee Services of Texas. Odds are, if you’re reading my blog, you’re pretty damn well off compared to folks escaping war with the clothes on their backs, right?

Joining or helping to start a Welcome Team seems like a great place to start. Let’s help them out. (h/t to Autojim for locating this organization.)

(Confidential to the “but terrorists!” crowd: according to stats from CATO quoted by John Scalzi, we’ve accepted 859,629 refugees since 2001. Of those, THREE have been convicted of planning terror attacks, and none actually happened. For perspective, 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014.)

Sometimes it’s not just Mississippi in a general sense that’s embarrassing. Sometimes it’s very specific.

Oh, good lord:

Republican presidential frontrunner Ben Carson announced on Friday that he has named former federal judge Charles W. Pickering to serve as his Mississippi state chair.

You may recall that Pickering made the news in the previous administration when President Bush tried to appoint him to the Fifth Circuit in 2001. This put him under enough of a microscope that troublesome things he wrote in the 1960s — e.g., a brief on how to amend the state’s anti-miscegenation statute to withstand Constitutional challenge — came to light. Politics ensued, and much was made of a 1994 case that could be turned in such a way to make it look like Pickering was soft on cross-burning (which is not a completely fair representation of the case, but all that’s public record easily read; draw your own conclusions). He got filibustered — probably more because of his pro-life position (and well done Dems for doing so) than his supposed racism — but eventually made it to the bench as a recess appointment until 2004, when he retired.

Anyway: The point here is not that Pickering is a racist. He’s not.

I mean, I’m sure he’s got racist ideas — he’s a 78 year old white guy from rural Mississippi; that’s a cohort not known for its progressive opinions on race — but his resume also includes taking actual personal risk in opposing the Klan (he required FBI protection at one point), so the national picture of him as a guy two steps away from burning crosses himself is egregiously unfair, and that ought to be obvious to anyone who even bothers to read his Wikipedia article (linked supra), or any coverage of his career not written with an axe to grind.

Moreover, my lay understanding of his bench career (aided a little by certain other family lawyers) is that he was broadly respected by folks across the political spectrum, and generally considered to be a better than average judge. Had he been a pro-choice Republican, my guess is there would’ve been no filibuster; because he was a conservative lawyer in the 1960s who wrote some stupid things, though, there was the material there to manufacture outrage and make the filibuster easier to pull off.

However, I don’t have to resort to research to know that Charles Pickering isn’t a firebrand racist, and to therefore draw the reasonable conclusion that of all the nutty things Carson has done, this isn’t one of them.

I know this because I know Charles Pickering personally. Charles is my cousin.

Specifically, he’s my grandfather’s first cousin, though because my great-grandmother was one of many siblings spread over many years, he’s about the same age as my mother. (I think this makes him my first cousin twice removed, but nobody knows what that means.) I’ve been in his house a hundred times, most recently in March after my grandfather’s sister Ruth died and we had a wake of sorts for her there (pics, if you’re curious, here; this one is of him).

Despite what ThinkProgress and other organs have written, Charles Pickering is a decent man. He’s got terrible politics, though, that are filtered through an apparently severely right wing and somewhat fundamentalist lens — which is to say that he’s a GREAT hire for Carson. The baffling thing here, and the thing that’s frankly embarrassing, is that my bright, intelligent cousin has been taken in by the bumbling goofball Carson.

This isn’t new. At the wake I mentioned above, I was seated close enough to him at lunch to hear him extolling Carson’s virtues to one of Ruth’s sons-in-law, an accomplished businessman and French national who, I assume, is with us in the rational world shaking our heads at the freakshow that is the GOP primary. (I’ve never talked politics with Patrick, but my assumption is that he makes me look like a Republican.)

So the tl;dr here is that:

A. The progressive coverage of this is lazy and reductive about who Charles actually is, which is kind of darkly hilarious — think about it: if indeed my cousin were a lifelong bigot and segregationist, why on EARTH would he be working to put another black man in the White House?

B. How the hell does someone like Carson convince smart people to help him and vote for him? It’s fucking depressing.

C. I am, once again, in the position of being embarrassed by something in Mississippi. Sigh.