Well, at least there’s this

On a predictable 5-4 vote, SCOTUS strikes down DOMA.

Once again, Alito, Scalia, Roberts, and Thomas are invited to blow me. Hilariously, Scalia’s dissent includes the line “we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation,” unlike, say, the Voting Right Act.

Stay classy, you ridiculous fuck


The most remarkable thing about the Supreme Court’s opinions announced Monday was not what the justices wrote or said. It was what Samuel Alito did.

The associate justice, a George W. Bush appointee, read two opinions, both 5-4 decisions that split the court along its usual right-left divide. But Alito didn’t stop there. When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, Alito visibly mocked his colleague.


Our “originalist” Supreme Court has decided that the Voting Rights Act has, somehow, become unconstitutional.

Confidential to A.S, J.R., S.A., C. T., and A.K.: Eat my shorts. And, seriously, don’t some of you reactionary intellectually dishonest goatfuckers need to retire soon?

What is, and isn’t, espionage

Greenwald nails it. Here’s an interesting fact about Espionage Act charges, btw:

Prior to Barack Obama’s inauguration, there were a grand total of three prosecutions of leakers under the Espionage Act (including the prosecution of Dan Ellsberg by the Nixon DOJ). That’s because the statute is so broad that even the US government has largely refrained from using it. But during the Obama presidency, there are now seven such prosecutions: more than double the number under all prior US presidents combined. How can anyone justify that?

And more:

The Terrorists already knew, and have long known, that the US government is doing everything possible to surveil their telephonic and internet communications. The Chinese have long known, and have repeatedly said, that the US is hacking into both their governmental and civilian systems (just as the Chinese are doing to the US). The Russians have long known that the US and UK try to intercept the conversations of their leaders just as the Russians do to the US and the UK.

They haven’t learned anything from these disclosures that they didn’t already well know. The people who have learned things they didn’t already know are American citizens who have no connection to terrorism or foreign intelligence, as well as hundreds of millions of citizens around the world about whom the same is true. What they have learned is that the vast bulk of this surveillance apparatus is directed not at the Chinese or Russian governments or the Terrorists, but at them.

I don’t fall into the trap of thinking either McCain or Romney would have been better here; the GOP theory of government power is typically far more offensive to me than the Democratic one – and, besides, everyone inside the Beltway is already lining up to pillory Snowden. The accord the parties find themselves in over this issue is part of the problem.

The Quotable Edward Snowden

Via here:

Snowden said Monday, “Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American,” slamming Cheney for the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping and for “deceitfully engineering” the Iraq war.

Books of 2013: Revisiting #10

Back in March, I talked to you about THAT IS ALL, John Hodgman’s final volume of complete world knowledge. If you’re interested in that book, it might be worth your while to check out the audiobook instead, because it is brilliant.

The link there goes to a review that goes into detail about the evolution of Hodgman’s voice, which is something I had intended to do in my blurb but ended up leaving off, largely because I wasn’t sure how much of what I thought I was seeing was in the text, and how much was colored by casual interaction with Hodgman on JCCC3 (where, obviously, he wasn’t “in character” all the time).

This is spot on, though:

Without giving too much away, you should know that That is All makes its crucial Turn when Hodgman stops writing as a familiar character, and begins writing as what we might guess is “himself,” whatever that means for a writer who is so aware of his changing status and thus his changing voice. Taking on a new voice, one that is so unselfconscious, is surely a vulnerable place to be after so many years occupying jokey versions of himself — we’ve heard Hodgman as a Former Professional Literary Agent, Resident Expert, Famous Minor Television Celebrity, and finally Deranged Millionaire (if you aren’t familiar with these, read your history). Now we are hearing from the post-post Hodgman — in other words, beyond the narrator-in-character writer there is a Hodgman voice we’ve been waiting to hear from again (I remember this voice from before his first book), and boy does it hit home. The book’s brilliant conclusion, telling the story of the metafictional Anne Darling Egan, serves as a transition not just in the book, but in Hodgman’s career — it suggests what Hodgman will do next, after the end of this series of postmodern characters. I have no inside information, but listening to the long segment preceding the closing song, I couldn’t help but think — Hodgman has a novel in him.

What I conclude from That is All is that Hodgman’s Deranged Millionaire character was gaslighting us the entire time. The truth, of course, is that Hodgman himself is a genuinely kind person who uses character as a way to express himself with a kind of wry, safe detachment. His recent Derangement is a fun side-note in the arc of his career, but careers aren’t what matter. What matters is that we do what we love, that we are with the people we love, and that we do our work surrounded by friends — that is what Hodgman has been doing by bringing in Paul Rudd and Jonathan Coulton and running gags that span dozens of hours of audio and years of work — he’s demonstrating to us what is most meaningful isn’t the jokes, it’s that those jokes are shared.

Iain Banks drives an F1

If you (a) enjoy good writing, (b) enjoy Iain Banks, and are sad he’s gone, or (c) just love Formula 1, then you should definitely go read this. Here’s a bit:

It’s all about the power, and weight transfer. The F1 cars weigh 600kg. In a Lamborghini Diablo – a maniac, kaka off-a-shovel device if ever there was one – each bhp has nearly three kilos to move around. In what we’re to be driving, each horse only has to shift 800 grams. Under acceleration drivers get hit with 2.5gs, under braking it’s four gs.


‘Allez! Go!’ Clutch out.

The sound assaults. I feel like a shell in a gun. The car leaps forward like a Navy fighter slung from a carrier. Feather slightly, pull back on the right paddle for second, exit pits. Assume the line. First gentle corner again, burst of – Holy shit! – power, then the counter-intuitive braking. It’s not really counter-intuitive, it’s just counter to anything I’ve learned in a road car, apart from how to do emergency stops. You stamp on the pedal. And stay stamped. It’s 40kg of pressure called for in the F3s; 80 in the F1s.

‘I brake, I wait’ Stephan said. The first part of the braking zone is the one place in each corner you have even the most microscopic amount of time to think, because initially, brake is all you do. Meanwhile, having just rearranged themselves after acceleration and then cornering, your internal organs struggle to find yet another novel configuration. I suspect bits of my insides that didn’t know the other parts existed have found themselves on term close to intimate, all jellied up together like passengers in a tube train. I start changing down (not too fast, or the engine blows up). Apex. Push the accelerator delicately, smoothly, trying to keep the whole foot on it, not just the ball. The LCD screen swings the revs on a ballistic curve from left to right, starting at 3000 and ending at 13,000rpm. The power…is crushing, awesome, frightening, dazzling. And synesthetic; over-spilling to invade and co-opt the sense that don’t appreciate it from first principles, obliterating divisions in the mind, searing tis impression forever into the deepest places in the memory. The car reacts instantly to every input like it’s responding to intentions, not actions.

Time Zones: Not new. Still poorly supported.

It really irritates me that, while I can set a time zone on an appointment, I cannot set flights in my calendar so that they appear properly regardless of where I am. I ought to be able to say flight 123 leaves Houston at 10:00 CDT and arrives in DC at 1 EDT, and have it work. But it doesn’t appear possible.


More tab-clearing: What the Tea Party means when they say “Tyranny”

This bit over at Crooks & Liars is illustrative:

Have you noticed how many right-wingers are decrying the “tyranny” of the Obama administration these days?

It’s particularly rife on the Tea Partying far right, where it’s extremely common to hear Obama being portrayed as a “tyrant,” particularly regarding his recent attempts to promote gun-control measures.


I was reminded the other day, rereading Stephen Budiansky’s marvelous book about Reconstruction, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War, just where the right-wing fetish about “tyranny” comes from. It’s a highly selective fetish, after all; none of these “libertarians” seemed even remotely concerned when George W. Bush launched the whole “enemy combatants” enterprise back in 2001.

According to Budiansky, it — like the phrase “waving the bloody shirt,” as well as the whole conservative adoption of that rhetorical ruse as an aggressive form of defense — has its origins in the years during and immediately following the Civil War, when it was common for Southerners to sneer at Abraham Lincoln (alive or dead) as a “tyrant”:

Budlansky’s book includes this:

A bald fact: Generations would hear how the South suffered “tyranny” under Reconstruction. Conveniently forgotten was the way that word was universally defined by white Southerners at the time: as a synonym for letting black men vote at all. A “remonstrance” issued by South Carolina’s Democratic Central Committee in 1868, personally signed by the leading native white political figures of the state, declared that there was no greater outrage, no greater despotism, than the provision for universal male suffrage just enacted in the state’s new constitution.

Huh. Pure coincidence, I’m sure.

That thing were you stereotype based on appearances, and are completely right

This morning, when I stopped to buy kolaches because my favorite burrito truck wasn’t at my usual coffee shop, an older white dude came in behind me.

He was of a certain type:

  • Pressed blue chinos;
  • White technical mock-T with UH logo;
  • Red and white athletic shoes;
  • Leather belt with “UH” medallions;
  • Big honkin’ gold “Presidential” Rolex; and
  • A charming affect that nevertheless suggested he was used to being in charge.

“Huh,” I thought. “I’ll bet that guy is either UH’s head basketball coach, or head football coach.”


This is not funny. Watch it anyway.

Stephen Colbert eulogizes his mother, who died last week at 92.

It may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long, but the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish — it only magnifies! — the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.

If your eyes are dry, I’m not sure I wanna know you.

Colbert, like us here at Heathen, has long been a fan and supporter of that “Kickstarter of philanthropy,” Donors Choose. DC is our “go-to” gift of choice for the severalness of folks in our lives who quite honestly don’t need another gee-gaw to commemorate another trip around the sun. It might be nice, gentle Heathen, to drop a little money in their bucket in honor of the late Mrs Colbert, seeing as how she clearly did a damned fine job with her boy Stephen.

Things that couldn’t possibly be a bad idea

Way back in 1994, when I moved to Houston and took a job at TeleCheck, I was absolutely shocked to discover that, in their machine room, there was still an honest-to-shit PDP-11 running RSX, alone in room full of Vaxes and Alphas.

“Good lord! Why?” I asked.

Well, it was complicated. TeleCheck used to be a loose confederation of state-by-state franchise operations, before one guy had bought up most of them (and, eventually, all of them). When they were still mostly franchises, though, a guy had had the idea to create a stand-alone computing services company to do the IT and programming for the franchises, plus some other clients as needed. He called the firm RealShare. (IT at TeleCheck was still known as RealShare well into the 1990s.)

By the early 1990s, nearly all the franchises (all except Australia, New Zealand, and two US states) plus RealShare were under one very leveraged roof held by a handful of execs (all of whom became hugely rich when FFMC bought TeleCheck in like ’92 or ’93, but never mind that). By that point, RealShare’s outside client list had dwindled to ONE: the vaguely-named MultiService Corporation of Kansas City. And MSC’s services ran on the PDP-11, and MSC wouldn’t pay to upgrade, so there they sat.

At the time, 19 years ago, it seemed obvious to me that this was a terrible idea, and that while they COULD stay there for years, they’d be left behind by the broader industry. In technology, holding on too long to older tech can become very, very expensive! Besides, by that point even the technologically conservative TeleCheck had moved on to Vaxes, and in fact was slowly migrating to the wave of the future that was Alpha. (Yeah, about that…)

I left TeleCheck in 1997, off to greener pastures. I assume that lone PDP has long since been powered down. After all, that was almost two decades ago.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover today that there ARE PDP-11s still in use, and that the organization using them intends to keep them on line until 2050, and has taken to trolling through vintage computing forums to find talent to keep them running!

“Wow! That’s amazing, Chief Heathen! I assume, at least, that they’re not being used for anything IMPORTANT, like financial processing, right?”

Well, you’d be wrong. True, it’s not financial processing they’re doing. It’s nuclear plant automation in by GE Canada.

An obsolete system from a defunct company with effectively no user base and fewer knowledgeable developers and administrators? What could possibly go wrong?

Why the GOP won’t change

Robert Reich is, as always, on point:

[…] Republican states are more homogenous and conspicuously less like the rest of America than the urbanized regions of the country that are growing more rapidly. Senators and representatives from these states naturally reflect the dominant views of their constituents — on immigration, abortion, and gay marriage, as well as guns, marijuana, race, and dozens of other salient issues. But these views are increasingly out of step with where most of the nation is heading.

This state-centered, relatively homogenous GOP structure effectively prevents the Party from changing its stripes. Despite all the post-election rhetoric about the necessity for change emanating from GOP leaders who aspire to the national stage, the national stage isn’t really what the GOP is most interested in or attuned to. It’s directed inward rather than outward, to its state constituents rather than to the nation.

This structure also blocks any would-be “New Republicans” such as Chris Christie from gaining the kind of power inside the party that a New Democrat like Bill Clinton received in 1992. The only way they’d be able to attract a following inside the Party would be to commit themselves to policies they’d have to abandon immediately upon getting nominated, as Mitt Romney did with disastrous results.

Fortunately, due to rapid demographic changes, Texas isn’t likely to be one of the GOP holdouts like the rest of the deep South.

Dept of Old News

There’s a pretty good video floating around concerning what would happen if Superman punched you at full force, but it turns out it’s basically exactly the same riff that Randall Munroe did in his very first What If a few months ago when he answered the question “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% of the speed of light?”

Answer in both cases: rough equivalent of a GIANT-ASS NUCLEAR BOMB. But given Munroe’s profile at this point, it seems kinda unlikely that the Superman-fist guy hadn’t seen Munroe’s work, which makes his effort seem cheesy.

Books of 2013, #25: 11/22/63, by Stephen King

Look, Steve, we love you. The American reading public, I mean. You’ve sold millions upon millions of books, had ’em adapted into films great and small (and sometimes more than once), and gathered enough publisher mojo to publish a fairly noncommercial epic in The Dark Tower.

But goddammit, man, you need an editor. And by this I mean someone who can tell you when your shit stinks — or, at least, when you’ve bloated out a book so far that it begins to collapse in on itself.

11/22/63 is King’s take on time travel. That as an elevator pitch was enough to get me to bite, even though the obligatory pivotal event was yet-more-baby-boomer-bullshit, but I should’ve given it a second though, and a third one if necessary. King playing in speculative fiction is trouble, and he fails utterly to do anything interesting with his premise. It’s telegraphed from the start that, obviously preventing JFK from leaving half his noggin in Dealey Plaza would have butterfly-esque effects that result in an unrecognizable dystopia in 2011 (“now” for the book). Shit, even if that wasn’t a tired and overdone trope in time travel fiction, you’d KNOW that was going to be the case just because of the name on the spine. It’s not like King is known for giving us ice cream and puppies, right?

But because he’s not (apparently) a student of the prior work, he goes there anyway, and gives it only a smattering of pages. He’s way more interested in the “detective story” of how his protagonist determines Oswald’s the real killer, and establishing how much his GenX hero loves the 1958 – 1963 world he’s transplanted to. Baby boomer wish fulfillment much, Steve-O?

The book’s a turgid mess, I’m sad to say; even his shout-outs to his own mythos — we start in Maine, naturally, and the time tunnel opens in 1958, so our hero’s in Derry during the 1958 portions of It — mostly failed to amuse me. He’s also dragged down by the amount of research into the assassination he clearly did, and which he by-God clearly had to get into the book regardless of cost. I’m reminded of one aspect of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, as explained to me by a college prof twenty years ago: Dreiser’s book lopes along pretty well until the last third or so, when it slows to a crawl as we move through every tiny bit of legal minutia Dreiser could cram in — because he’d done the research, too, about a notorious crime and resulting trial in upstate New York, and he was hell-bent on using that material, too. It hurt Dreiser, but it’s one of the fatal flaws for King.

Oh well. At least we’ve got Joe. Plus, my “three Kings” reading project still has one entry to go: Owen’s novel, which has garnered high praise. He’ll be on deck this summer.

Oh, one more thing

This makes 25 books from 1/1 to 6/7 (when I finished it), so the “50 book year” thing still seems on point.

Books of 2013, #24: Nothing to Lose, by Lee Child (Reacher #12)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, all of what I said before stands. What do you want from me? I was traveling.

I almost skipped this one, as the reviews on Amazon are pretty bad, but given that Child tries to build at least SOME continuity into his books I figured it couldn’t be TOO awful.

Well, yeah, it kinda was. It’s a narrative mess with all sorts of shallow stock characters; one gets the idea Child’s heart just wasn’t in this one. Mark this one “devoted Reacher fans only.”

Books of 2013, #23: Against the Odds, by John Pendergrass

This one’s kind of a gimme: the author is a family friend (my brother and I went to high school with his kids) in addition to being my stepfather’s former medical partner. Pendergrass is about 10 years younger than my stepdad, and has always been substantially more athletic, so to say people were SURPRISED when he announced he’d start doing triathlons in his sixties would be incorrect. What surprised them was his plan: to do six of them, at the big-boy Ironman level, one on each (populated) continent, all before his 70th birthday.

N.B., if you didn’t bother to click that link, what “Ironman” means in this context:

  • 2.4 miles of open water swimming, followed by
  • 112 miles on a bike, followed by
  • a goddamn marathon, i.e. 26.2 miles running.

Yeah. Right. I’m 43, and can’t image one of them, let alone six, but John nails it. In Arizona, Brazil, Switzerland, New Zealand, and South Africa, he finished well ahead of the official cutoff time. Only in his last outing — at a miserably hot site in China — did he come up at all short. But even then he finished the race. That’s amazing and incredible.

The story is interesting, and it’s a fun read, but it also shows that the author is a physician by trade, not a writer. That matters less when you’ve got something clear to tell, and John certainly does. Obviously, too, this is the sort of thing a man in his sixties can really only contemplate if he’s already pretty well off — tri bikes are very expensive, to say nothing of the travel involved. It’s hard to gauge if this would be fun to read if you don’t know John, but obviously enough people think so that Random House bought the book, so there’s that.

Books of 2013, #22: Drinking with Men, by Rosie Schaap

Wow, I’ve gotten behind on the posts, but at least I’m still keeping pace on the reading.

Drinking with Men somehow found its way onto my Kindle several months ago, probably after reading a review somewhere that suggested I’d enjoy it. Past-me is pretty good about that sort of thing, and I’m usually right.

I mostly was this time: Schaap’s memoir takes the form of a sort of bar travelogue: from her days sneaking into the cocktail car of a New York commuter train to her early adult life in Manhattan, she’s regularly become a regular of this or that local haunt. I understand the appeal, and have done it several places myself — hell, back in the 1990s, we used to invite Cecil’s to our parties, and it was a year or two after I stopping hanging out there before I finally stopped getting a Christmas card from the owner.

People who’ve never been regulars think of this as sad. They don’t know what they’re missing.

Anyway, Schaap is a talented writer, but a few times I felt the bar-to-bar structure of the book kind of limited it. She hints at, but never explores, her life outside these bars; it appears only inasmuch as it serves the story of her relationship to each watering hole, so to speak. Her courtship and marriage to her husband, for example, is only discussed as it connects to her bar life.

She’s not without circumspection about this tendency of hers; it troubles her more than once, and I wonder if it’s still something she does. I also wonder what she’ll write next, because — narrow focus aside — Drinking with Men is a great read.

Schneier on Snowden

As always, he nails it:

Edward Snowden broke the law by releasing classified information. This isn’t under debate; it’s something everyone with a security clearance knows. It’s written in plain English on the documents you have to sign when you get a security clearance, and it’s part of the culture. The law is there for a good reason, and secrecy has an important role in military defense.

But before the Justice Department prosecutes Snowden, there are some other investigations that ought to happen.

We need to determine whether these National Security Agency programs are themselves legal. The administration has successfully barred anyone from bringing a lawsuit challenging these laws, on the grounds of national secrecy. Now that we know those arguments are without merit, it’s time for those court challenges.

It’s clear that some of the NSA programs exposed by Snowden violate the Constitution and others violate existing laws. Other people have an opposite view. The courts need to decide.

We need to determine whether classifying these programs is legal. Keeping things secret from the people is a very dangerous practice in a democracy, and the government is permitted to do so only under very specific circumstances. Reading the documents leaked so far, I don’t see anything that needs to be kept secret. The argument that exposing these documents helps the terrorists doesn’t even pass the laugh test; there’s nothing here that changes anything any potential terrorist would do or not do. But in any case, now that the documents are public, the courts need to rule on the legality of their secrecy.

And we need to determine how we treat whistle-blowers in this country. We have whistle-blower protection laws that apply in some cases, particularly when exposing fraud, and other illegal behavior. NSA officials have repeatedly lied about the existence, and details, of these programs to Congress.

Only after all of these legal issues have been resolved should any prosecution of Snowden move forward. Because only then will we know the full extent of what he did, and how much of it is justified.

I believe that history will hail Snowden as a hero — his whistle-blowing exposed a surveillance state and a secrecy machine run amok. I’m less optimistic of how the present day will treat him, and hope that the debate right now is less about the man and more about the government he exposed.

Three Felonies A Day

You oughta go read this:

Boston civil rights lawyer Harvey Silverglate says that everyone in the US commits felonies everyday and if the government takes a dislike to you for any reason, they’ll dig in and find a felony you’re guilty of.

Case in point: I remember, but you probably don’t, that the telco Qwest refused to participate in some very, very broad and overreaching (and probably illegal) surveillance back before 9/11. Immediately, the DOJ terminated a whole slew of unrelated contracts with Qwest, and then things REALLY got fun:

And then the DoJ targeted him and prosecuted him and put him in prison for insider trading — on the theory that he knew of anticipated income from secret programs that QWest was planning for the government, while the public didn’t because it was classified and he couldn’t legally tell them, and then he bought or sold QWest stock knowing those things.

This CEO’s name is Joseph P. Nacchio and TODAY he’s still serving a trumped-up 6-year federal prison sentence today for quietly refusing an NSA demand to massively wiretap his customers.

The Internet Randomly Answers A Question I’ve Had For Years

That question: “Are birthdays distributed evenly throughout the year, or are people more likely to be born in certain months?”

IO9 has part of the answer, via a heat map by NPR’s Matt Stiles that, in turn, was based on a table published in the NY Times showing the rank, in terms of births per day, of each date in the year (using US birth data, 1973-1999).

That’s interesting and all, but it leaves out a key bit of data: What’s the actual birth volume per day? I’d expect some minimal variation — no data set is perfectly even — but the ranking really only interesting if there’s meaningful variance.

Stiles noticed, and so his follow-up post shows as much birth volume data as he could get his hands on. The answer turns out to be that while September remains the most popular month in which to be born, it’s not by a meaningful margin. Generally speaking, the birthdays really ARE more or less evenly distributed.