Dept. of Unintended Irony

High school students in Florida were disqualified from a theater competition because their anti-totalitarian play (James Clavell’s 1963 one-act “The Children’s Story”) includes a scene wherein students are encouraged to cut up a flag following the US’ defeat at the hands of some powerful enemy. The episode is designed to illustrate the dangers of mindless obedience, a fact apparently lost on the competition’s administrators, who appear to have missed the last 14 years of Constitutional law. Co-chair and theater teacher Melody Wicht disqualified the team based on Florida Statute 876.52, which bars flag desecration. “My problem was that they took an American flag off the flagpole and cut it into pieces. They were disqualified based on Florida law,” she said.

Of course, just such a statute was struck down in 1990 by the Supremes; writing for the majority, Scalia (!) noted that flag desecration was clearly an expression of disagreement, and was therefore protected speech. This means the Florida statute is no good, either.

Perhaps the theater teachers in Florida need a refresher from the government and history departments. What they taught here was that (1) they don’t actually understand the First Amendment; and (2) they’re incapable of experiencing a work in any but the most literal senses. And people wonder why smart kids hate high school.

Dept. of Creeping BigBrotherism

Security expert Bruce Schneier — author of the excellent Beyond Fear, which everyone ought to read — discusses the increased police powers and governmental surveillance since 9/11, a trend that continues more or less unabated. An excerpt:

We need to weigh each security countermeasure. Is the additional security against the risks worth the costs? Are there smarter things we can be spending our money on? How does the risk of terrorism compare with the risks in other aspects of our lives: automobile accidents, domestic violence, industrial pollution, and so on? Are there costs that are just too expensive for us to bear? Rarely do we discuss how little identification has to do with security, and how broad surveillance of everyone doesn’t really prevent terrorism. Unfortunately, it’s rare to hear this level of informed debate. Few people remind us how minor the terrorist threat really is. Rarely do we discuss how little identification has to do with security, and how broad surveillance of everyone doesn’t really prevent terrorism. And where’s the debate about what’s more important: the freedoms and liberties that have made America great or some temporary security? Instead, the Department of Justice, fueled by a strong police mentality inside the administration, is directing our nation’s political changes in response to Sept. 11. And it’s making trade-offs from its own subjective perspective–trade-offs that benefit it even if they are to the detriment of others.

Agree or not, it’s definitely worth thought. This administration is making these tradeoffs with no regard for long-term repercussions, and that’s scary as hell. This week, Bush threatened to veto a bipartisan bill that would scale back the powers granted under the USA PATRIOT Act. They’re not interested in giving back powers; governments never are, and ours is no exception. Or, at least, this Adminstration isn’t.

Dept. of Sucky Browsers

Microsoft, aware that its flagship browser Internet Explorer is rife with security holes, is suggesting that you type in URLs instead of clicking them in some circumstances to avoid falling prey to such exploits.

What? Yep, that’s right: since clicking links in IE is a risky behavior, they suggest you avoid doing so. Here’s another suggestion: USE A DIFFERENT BROWSER. There is no platform where IE is the best choice, period.

New Frontiers in Weaseldom

Comcast, long hated in many towns in its capacity as cable monopoly, has brought monopolistic customer service to a new market: broadband. Despite not having a set policy or published bandwidth usage limits, it’s been warning and then disconnecting customers who use too much. The real kicker is that even when asked, they won’t tell customers how much IS too much. Fantastic.

Coverage at and

Dept. of Finally

Part of the PATRIOT Act has been found unconstitutional. Now, for the rest of that damn creeping totalitarian law. Just to remind you: it got passed in a panic after 9/11, and our elected representatives by and large DID NOT READ IT before passing it. If that’s not dereliction of duty, I don’t know what is.

Scarier, of course, is the fact that it almost certainly had to exist on 9/10/2001, waiting for the right moment to be introduced to Congress.

Dept. of Monocultures

MyDoom is makingi the rounds this week; The Register notes it’s the worst virus ever, at least in terms of infection rate, and other sources agree. While initially thought to have been the work of a Linux fan upset about SCO’s legal shenanigans, it now seems to have come from Russia (alternate link) — and that the SCO DDOS activities of the worm are in fact a red herring, since it also installs backdoors on infected machines. Nevertheless, SCO is offering a $250K reward for the arrest of the worm’s author.

In the meantime, Techweb offers some tips on how you can protect yourself, but they leave out the one most likely to produce results: Stop using Windows. Corporate America is a monoculture of Windows, and this — coupled with Windows’ horrible security — creates a target virus authors find irresistable. My OS X machines are safe, as are my Linux boxen, partly because of a fundamentally better security model, but also because they’re not the majority platform. If you’re a normal human, when you next consider a computer purchase, look hard at the Mac. If you’re savvy and geeky and willing to dive into the deep end, consider running Linux full-time. You’ll be contributing to the end of the monoculture, which will save us all from the inevitable and catastrophic effects of such homogeneous environments.

More on Faith v. Science

The Administration’s approach to soaring STD rates in American teens is — you guessed it — funding more abstinance-only programs. These programs, of course, generally prohibit discussing alternatives to chastity and are viewed by the scientific community as incomplete (at best) and dangerous (at worst). There are even studies that suggest that these abstinence-only programs result in increases in pregnancy and STD rates. Don’t miss the point here: the programs advocated by this administration prohibit complete discussion of sexually transmitted diseases. They represent less education, not more, and as such are MORE dangerous and LESS effective at reducing risk for teens.

Not that this bothers Bush & co., of course; the point here is to keep the Religious Right happy, and those folks won’t tolerate any program that doesn’t push total abstinence. Pay attention: the ongoing push for abstinence-only programs trades actual education — and the benefits associated therewith — for political support.

Sniping at Oscar

In which the Heathen provide commentary on the Academy’s nominations, or most of them, anyway. To Wit:

Best Picture
  • Good News: They finally noticed what Peter Jackson’s been doing.
  • Bad News: Seabiscuit’s on the list, too. Haven’t we heard enough about that goddamn horse already?
Best Director
  • Good News: Jackson scores again, and has three films to show for it — with no big nods thus far, it makes sense that they’ve held off until the final film.
  • Bad News: He’s against Sophia Coppola and Clint Eastwood.
Best Actor
  • Good News: In a surprise move, Johnny Depp gets the nod he’s deserved for years for his role in Pirates of the Caribbean.
  • Bad News: Sean Penn again?
Best Actress
  • Good News: Charlize Theron’s outstanding performance makes her nomination here a foregone conclusion.
  • Bad News: Charlize Theron’s role as a mass murdering hard-luck hooker makes it an awful big stretch to think the Academy will give her the statue she deserves.
Best Supporting Actor
  • Good News: Benicio Del Toro and Alec Baldwin are on the list.
  • Bad News: What the hell is wrong with any of Jackson’s cast? Where’s Sean Astin? Where’s Ian McKellen?
Best Supporting Actress
  • Good News: We’ll have to listen to some Hollywood type try to say “Aghdashloo” on stage in front of millions of people.
  • Bad News: Renee “Look! I can modulate my weight AND do an accent!” Zellweger will probably win.
Best Screenplay (Original)
  • Good News: Lost in Translation gets a deserved nod here.
  • Bad News: I have an ugly feeling that fucking fish movie will win.
Best Screenplay (Adaptation)
  • Good News: LOTR scores another (and, in this case, inevitable) nomination here.
  • Bad News: With a fantasy epic and a comic adaptation to choose from here, they may well play it safe and pick that goddamn horse again.
  • Bad News: Not to beat a drum here, but what the hell is wrong with these people? LOTR deserves at least a nomination here for sheer scope of film if nothing else.
  • More Bad News: That fucking horse is on this list, too.
Film Editing
  • Good News: LOTR’s here, if not in the above category.
  • Bad News: Seriously, can’t we Alpo that thing yet?
Visual Effects
  • Good News: Lord of the Rings again, natch. Though the coolest effect was actually in the first movie; the Balrog is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on film. (Not counting Charlize Theron, above.)
  • More Good News: Pirates of the Caribbean gets a deserved nod here, too.
  • Bad News: In a field 2/3 great, Wet-Russell-Crowe could walk away with it.
Art Direction
  • Good News: LOTR once again, for that tiny task of visualizing a whole world for the screen.
  • Bad News: It’s up against everyone’s favorite glue candidate, wet-Russell-Crowe, and Dances with Samurai, none of which feature the kiss-of-death aspects of magic, dragons, etc.
Costume Design
  • Good News: See Art Direction, above.
  • Bad News: See Art Direction, above.
  • Good News: See Visual Effects, above.
  • Bad News: See Visual Effects, above.
Sound Mixing
  • Good News: Peter Jackon’s ploy of make-the-stadium-pretend-to-be-orcs pays off.
  • Bad News: The inescapable Spiderman-goes-to-the-Races is here, too.
Original Song
  • Good News: A Mighty Wind’s “Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” is here.
  • Bad News: TWO songs from Cold Mountain are, too.

Dept. of Surveilance

“Googlestalking” is using the search engine to locate bits of information about friends, family, past loves, etc. It’s surprisingly widespread, but itsn’t without its pitfalls.

Last week, I read a really funny story about such a pitfall on a private conferencing system. I discovered today that the author also put it in her blog, so you may all now giggle at her discovery. Call it “Whatever happened to that girl from Chorus, and does she have trouble witih speed limits?

Cheney’s Confused

Last week, he insisted in some interviews that we knew Saddam had WMD, and that we knew Saddam was in bed with Al Queda.

Trouble is, both of those claims have been repudiated by the CIA, the Pentagon, and his own administration. Ooops.

So much for the 9/11 Commission

For months — well, years — the Bush administration has been stonewalling the group empaneled to investigate the events around the 9/11 attacks. Specifically, they’ve been trying to figure out how Atta, et. al., managed to get their elaborate plan to fruition without anybody noticing, or least without anybody noticing and DOING something about it.

Perhaps because of the uncooperative nature of Bush’s White House, they want more time. Predictably, the administration opposes this, and perhaps consequently the chairs are reluctant to force the issue. The families are, of course, livid. The media is, of course, giving the White House a pass on the issue; Salon’s coverage is the only I’ve seen.

Plame Game Continues

Time reports that a Grand Jury has been convened to review the leak affair. We’ll see what happens now.

In a separate but related event, a group of decorated former CIA officers sent a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert this week calling for a formal Congressional inquiry into the affair as well.

I suppose there’s some hope that justice might actually happen. I wish I were more optimistic.

Dept. of Coincidences

Yesterday, I got Jon Krakauer’s new book about Mormons — or, more specifically, about a disturbing and bloody murder committed by members of a fundamentalist offshoot of that sect.

Today, Teresa Nielsen-Hayden highlights a story about a similar batch of Mormons, this time concerned with forced marriages and escapse therefrom. Take a look.

Elizabeth Mitchell has pointed me toward a strange little story thatÕs developing in Colorado City (formerly Short Creek) Arizona: The townÕs children are fleeing. It started less than a week and a half ago, when two girls named Fawn Broadbent and Fawn Holm ran away for fear of being forced into polygamous “marriages”. It wasnÕt the first time children have tried to run away from Short Creek. The difference was that this time, the authorities didnÕt return the Fawns to their families. They escaped and stayed escaped. That story went round the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saint) community at lightning speed, and in the week that followed, eight more children ran. All it took was the hope of real escape, and some indication that help was available in the outside world.

As if e-voting weren’t screwed up enough

The Department of Defense is planning to use an Internet-based system called SERVE to streamline voting for overseas citizens during the 2004 primary and general elections. In brief, the system would theoretically allow these citizens (primarily military personnel and spouses) to vote from any Internet connection.

A review by outside experts — available at — makes the argument that the SERVE system is so insecure that it should be shut down immediately. Frankly, it’s hard to read their conclusions without realizing they’re exactly right if you know anything at all about the Internet.

Ed Felton has more at Freedom To Tinker.

Hey, remember that AFA Poll on Gay Marriage?

It looks like the bigots at the American Family Association no longer have quite the faith in online polling that they once did, as their favored position got whipped in their own poll on the subject.

Frankly, their naivete is sorts of charming. I mean, it’s like they’ve never heard of Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf or something.

Or it would be charming, if those Tupelo goons weren’t barking mad.

It just keeps getting better

Political appointees in the Justice Department are refusing to release an internal memo dealing with the GOP’s Texas redistricting efforts.

The Democrats’ lead attorney, J. Gerald Hebert of Alexandria, responded with an appeal to the Justice Department yesterday, alleging that career attorneys had recommended an objection to the redistricting plan, but were overruled by political appointees. Democrats argue that the Texas map violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it eliminates two districts in which minorities make up a majority of the voters. “Clearly the Department of Justice is stonewalling this request to avoid the embarrassment that will surely ensue when the memorandum is made public,” Hebert wrote in his appeal, which was filed with the department’s Office of Information and Privacy. Washington Post

Today’s Quote

Pointed out by My Attorney:

Don’t you drink? I notice you speak slightingly of the bottle. I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky? When you are cold and wet what else can warm you? Before an attack who can say anything that gives you the momentary well-being that rum does? The only time it isn’t good for you is when you write or when you fight. You have to do that cold. But it always helps my shooting. Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief. Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Speak slightingly of the bottle? Not I. Cheers.

Dept. of Inconveniently-Placed Beeping Devices & the Maintenance Thereof

My house has very tall ceilings on the second and third floors, which means very inconveniently placed smoke detectors. In our bedroom, the device is about twelve feet up, if not more. This is, of course, exactly where you want such a device, but this is not without its challenges.

As I am not twelve feet tall, I had not bothered to inspect said detector since moving in. I could see a red light, and assumed all was well. They’re integral detectors with a backup battery, so drain on the battery is presumably quite low — so low, in fact, that it took more than three years for the battery to began circling the drain, emitting its beep occasionally and irregularly, but (mostly) not at night.

We, of course, ignored it.

As the beep became more frequent and persistent, we began asking friends about borrowing ladders, but the logistics were always a bit ugly — neither Erin nor I own a car that can transport an extension ladder long enough to reach the detector. The best option seemed to be walking such a ladder over from Chris and Joann’s place, about half a mile away — a plan that was appealing on a surreal level, at least. (“Where are you going with that ladder?” “What ladder?”)

Saturday night, the beeps reached a fever pitch. Around 4:00 AM, we decamped to the spare bedroom and promised ourselves we’d resolve the battery issue on Sunday, and that we did. At Home Depot — previously maligned in this space, you may recall — we located a weird sort of hybrid ladder made by Gorilla (not “made by A gorilla,” mind you) that manages to be both an extension ladder and a stepladder. It’s quite a clever animal, and compact to boot — in its extension form, it’s good for eighteen feet, but is only about five and a half feet long when fully folded; a similar extension ladder would be twice as long. It wasn’t cheap — $200, vs. about $120-$150 for a regular extension ladder — but the added flexibility more than compensates. It’s certainly cheaper than owning BOTH types, and takes up less space to boot.

Of course, this development makes me wonder how long ladders as a category have gone without significant advances in design or materials. Certainly extension ladders became more viable at greater lengths as materials got lighter and stronger, but they’re still fundamentally a straight-line unsupported ladder, and I’d be willing to guess such devices have been around for thousands of years. In any case, it appears that the Gorilla is the result not of material science advances, but of simple human cleverness, and that appeals to this here geek.

More on the Feds and “States’ Rights”

Two defendents apparently winning their medical pot case in California court have been arrested by the Feds to stand trial under Federal laws, which of course don’t recognize California’s decision to allow medical use.

While their defense attorneys were meeting in the judge’s chambers to discuss the case with Tehama County assistant district attorney Lynn Strom, Strom announced that she was dropping the state charges because Davidson and Blake were being arrested in the courtroom on a federal indictment.

Good God, when will this kind of crap stop? Actually, I know the answer: never, unless we get ideologues out of the White House and DOJ. Remember this in November.

Dept. of Weasly Moves

So far, I’ve been silent on the recess appointment of my cousin Charles Pickering (his father and my great-grandmother were siblings) to the 5th Circuit. I’ve said before he was getting a bad rap, and that Bush’s other right-winger judicial nominees (some openly hostile to the idea of Constitutional Privacy altogether, which is to say hostile to not just Roe but also Griswold) were a much greater cause for concern. Judge Pickering is a Republican, of course, but we can hardly expect progressive judicial nominations from a neocon-dominated administration. I do believe he is a fair jurist, and that he’s been treated very poorly by the political process — though I understand why, too; it’s a bed the GOP made for eight years.

In any case, I think, perhaps, I can say all I need to say on the subject of the recess appointment with this quote:

“Any appointment of a federal judge during a recess should be opposed.” Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) opposing the appointment of an African American judge, December 2000

I agree, Trent. It does seems wrong, doesn’t it?

Dept. of Whales

Some tourists saw some killer whales off Port Aransas this weekend.

That’s Port Aransas, TEXAS. Who knew? Well, apparently several people; the article notes that they suspect about 70 of ’em live in the Gulf, but they’re not often seen. Neat. Just don’t tell the game and fish commission, or some good ol’ boy will try to hook one.

Oh, and recognizing that this is a story linked to a TV station’s web site, let’s try not to imagine the dialog surrounding this story during whatever newscast it graced, since it almost certainly included “Some local fisherman had a whale of a time on Sunday…” Gack.

Film Department

What we saw
Patty Jenkins’ Monster, a sort of biopic about Aileen Wuornos, a murdering hooker from Florida executed in 2001.
What we’d say if we were being really, really flip
“It’s the most romantic movie about serial killers EVER.”
One reason why that’s wrong
Despite claims to the contrary, Wuornos wasn’t really a “serial killer” in the sense of Berkowitz, Dahmer, etc. She maintained relationships with other humans she didn’t kill; she killed to cover up theft (dead men tell no tales) than as an end unto itself; her crimes lacked the broken-sexuality component common to the genre, etc. Of course, that means she just killed a bunch of people without being completely nutso, which is hardly better.
Another reason why that’s wrong
Since the definition of “serial killers” in use here is at best flawed, shouldn’t we also consider Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde?
The answer to that
Notwithstanding that, then, yet another reason that doesn’t work
Wuornos’ lover was the star witness against her in her trial, though the circumstances of that are complex to say the least.
Okay, smartass, what makes this movie so great?
Charlize Theron, beyond a shadow of a doubt, turns in a performance unequalled in recent memory. Think DeNiro in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. Think Will Smith in Ali, even if you didn’t see it (trust us) (and even if you think we’re weird for listing two boxing flicks). Think Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. It’s like that. Theron has done a load of work trading on her looks. She’s gorgeous, she’s tall, and she’s foreign. Unfortunately, she did movies like 2 Days in the Valley and Devil’s Advocate, and last year’s awful remake of The Italian Job that would lead you to believe she’s just another pretty face in Hollywood, a woman sure to make a splash on red carpets for a year or two, and just as sure to vanish without a trace soon enough. No, I don’t think so. Not now. The red-carpet Theron is nowhere to be seen; in her place is someone entirely different. She nails the accent, the body language — the swagger of the permanent loser is perfect. Even her height isn’t glamorous here; it’s played for freak value. Theron towers over Christina Ricci, who plays Wuornos’ love interest (and, amazingly, manages not to be completely overshadowed).
So who else is in this flick?
Bruce Dern, playing what may be the best almagamation of all crazy-Bruce-Dern-roles. Wild-haired and in a surplus jacket, he’s a crazed Vietnam vet who understands Wuornos’ career choice, at least until she starts knocking off the johns.
So where’s it playing?
In Houston, at the Angelika. Elsewhere, do a search.

CBS, the Super Bowl,, and “Issue Ads”

It’s well documented at this point that CBS has refused to carry an anti-Bush ad by the progressive group during the Super Bowl on the grounds that they don’t run “issue ads.”

Er, right. Of course, they do plan to run one of those hamhanded, ridiculous, Office of National Drug Control Policy ads, which I’m pretty sure counts as an “issue ad.”

Lessig points out why we ought to be concerned about this.