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.

I love John Oliver.

Nothing about what these assholes are trying to do is going to work.”

He continues:

France is going to endure and I’ll tell you why. If you are in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck. Go ahead, bring your bankrupt ideology. They’ll bring Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloise cigarettes, Camus, camembert, madeleines, macarons, and the fucking croquembouche. You just brought a philosophy of rigorous self-abnegation to a pastry fight, my friend.

The best list of Bobbys you’ll see online today

Kiernan Shipka shares her memories of her varied middle-sibling co-stars in list form.

I hadn’t noticed, but apparently Bobby Draper was played by eight different actors over the course of the show. (Also surprising: two actresses played Sally, though the other girl was only in the pilot). Some were apparently one-offs, and the last two carried the bulk of the episodes, which is probably why we as viewers didn’t really notice.

Because I was curious, I looked it up. According to IMDB, the character appeared in 74 of the 92 episodes (Sally is in 89). * The last Bobby, Mason Vale Cotton (b. 2002), had the role for 33 of those appearances. * His immediate predecessor, Jared Gilmore (b. 2000), was in 19 episodes.

That leaves 22 episodes where someone other than these two played Bobby.

On the big lake they call Gitche Gume

Forty years ago today, on November 10, 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank with all 29 hands in an early winter gale on Lake Superior. You probably know the song about it.

I’ve mentioned this here before, but I’ll note again for the record that I was shocked to learn in my twenties that this 70s-soft-rock gem was, in the true folk tradition, about a current event, not something that happened in the age of sail. Gordon Lightfoot wrote and recorded the song only a month after the sinking, in December of 1975. To this day, nobody really knows what took her down — the weather was obviously a factor, and could’ve produced a massive wave, but that’s speculation.

There’s a whole host of links available at this MeFi thread that may be worth your time if you, like me, find the whole thing fascinating.

Having trouble understanding right-wing logic? Try this.

The GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowlege pulls lots of threads together in one place. Worth your time.

A sample:

Fifty years ago, if a person did not know who the prime minister of Great Britain was, what the conflict in Vietnam was about, or the barest rudiments of how a nuclear reaction worked, he would shrug his shoulders and move on. And if he didn’t bother to know those things, he was in all likelihood politically apathetic and confined his passionate arguing to topics like sports or the attributes of the opposite sex.

There were exceptions, like the Birchers’ theory that fluoridation was a monstrous communist conspiracy, but they were mostly confined to the fringes. Certainly, political candidates with national aspirations steered clear of such balderdash.

At present, however, a person can be blissfully ignorant of how to locate Kenya on a map, but know to a metaphysical certitude that Barack Obama was born there, because he learned it from Fox News. Likewise, he can be unable to differentiate a species from a phylum but be confident from viewing the 700 Club that evolution is “politically correct” hooey and that the earth is 6,000 years old.

And he may never have read the Constitution and have no clue about the Commerce Clause, but believe with an angry righteousness that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.

Go read the whole thing.

It’s now legal for American cops to kidnap and torture you

All you have to do is step outside the country.

If Meshal’s tormentors had been foreign officials, he could have sought a remedy under the Torture Victim Protection Act. Yet the majority holds that because of unspecified national security and foreign policy concerns, a United States citizen who was arbitrarily detained, tortured, and threatened with disappearance by United States law enforcement agents in Africa must be denied any remedy whatsoever.

“Where Hunter S. Thompson had motorcycle gangs and Halcion, we must content ourselves with mineral rights and hydrocarbons.”

This is awesome. Obviously, you can trade in oil futures, but what happens if you just try to buy a barrel of oil? Tracy Alloway found out.

The point of the exercise was to take part, in some small way, in the severe contango present in the oil market in 2008. Generally speaking, oil purchased for immediate delivery is much less expensive than oil purchased to be delivered at some future date, but in 2008 the differential was huge enough that those with the capacity to move and store large amounts of crude oil could buy, hold, and profit at a meaningful scale.

It took a few years to push the idea to execution, but Alloway did eventually pull it off (though at a smaller scale). The story’s hilarious, but this may be my favorite part:

A true oil storage trade therefore required an early buyer. The usual suspects—think Glencore and Trafigura—wouldn’t dream of touching my puny amount of oil, of course. So I looked farther afield, all the way to my ex-colleagues, who I thought surely still harbored those dreams of owning Black Gold.

Izabella Kaminska, a writer for FT Alphaville and an all-round commodities expert, expressed interest in the contract, then immediately embarked on a due diligence process that would make me rue the whole endeavor.

Unsatisfied with photos of the product, she recruited the services of a professional oil consultant for comfort. The consultant asked for a full inspector’s analysis report and a proof-of-origin certificate. All I had was a FedEx invoice, though I assured them both that I wouldn’t dream of peddling anything but top-shelf sweet crude.

“That [is] all good and well until you learn it’s not Bakken but Kurdish oil, under strict embargo. Well done [for] supporting ISIS,” the consultant replied by e-mail. Adding insult, the consultant informed me that the glass bottle was worth more than the oil inside it, anyway.

When I threatened to sell the oil to a far-friendlier former FT colleague, one without expert knowledge of commodities or the benefit of a sarcastic oil professional, I was accused of taking advantage of less-informed retail investors. Expletives followed.

(Via MeFi.)

I might need a drone now

Rand has picked up a drone, and in so doing experienced a few “Holy Shit!” moments. Click through, read, and watch. They’re still spendy — the one he grabbed is $700 — but the video footage is just amazing, and it’s a cinch such tech will be half that price in a year or two.

Posted in Pix


Look, lots of things are shitty, but Spike Lee’s new film Chi-Raq is coming, and it looks kind of amazing. Lee has elected to work with a play this time. Given that the play in question is over two thousand years old, it needed some updates for modern sensibilities, but I think you’ll find the basic argument of Lysistrata pretty easy to grasp whether it’s set in ancient Greece or modern-day Chicago.

As is often the case, Lee has managed to wrangle a hell of a cast: Nick Canon, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, and Isiah Whitlock (“Sheeeeeeit“) are just some highlights.

Out December 4.


Because we’re all goddamn hysterical idiots, we let fear of meth drive good cold meds off the shelves, replaced by something many of us — including Chief Heathen — saw as effectively inert. Turns out, we were right:

When the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 passed, pharmacies moved all cold-medicine with the actually-works ingredient pseudoephedrine, only available on request and with a copy of your ID. In its place, the pharmacy shelves were restocked with phenylephrine, which was alleged to work just as well. It doesn’t work at all.

Still Montrose!

My mother was visiting this weekend, and I’m pleased to report that Montrose managed to rise above the gentrification enough to produce a delightfully odd moment yesterday: on our way home from brunch, about 4 blocks from home, we passed a buff, shirtless middle-aged dude walking down Taft in the rain holding an enormous green parrot.

I’d read a lot more sportswriting if it was all like this

Francis Barry at the New York Times wrote up that recent base-ball contest in language approximating that contemporaneous with the Cubbies’ last win, and it is glorious:

CHICAGO, Oct. 21 — The New York Metropolitans claimed decisive possession of the National League base-ball pennant on enemy turf here at Wrigley Field on Wednesday night, sweeping the Sisyphean Chicago Cubs in four games to earn their ducats to next week’s World Series championship.

The Metropolitans — also known as the “Mets” — sent six safely across the plate before the third inning, mostly as a result of the derring-do of their Bunyanesque first-sacker, Lucas Duda. The mighty Californian smote a home run and a double to tally five of those six runs before the Cubs seemed to comprehend that a game concerning their possible erasure from the 2015 field was well underway.

He continues with play by play:

By game time, ivy-festooned Wrigley was loaded to the gunnels, more than 42,000 strong, their spasms of joy and anticipation such that a detonated stick of dynamite would not have been heard. Fans laughed and cheered like college undergraduates.

But Chicago’s starting twirler, the right-hander Jason Hammel, soon tempered the enthusiasm of the home-towners with his lackluster showing. Curtis Granderson, the pesky right fielder who bats first for the Metropolitans, poked a one-bagger into left field, and so it began.

David Wright, New York’s valiant third baseman who has come back from chronic woes of his broad back, perished on a third twirl, and the multitudes celebrated. Following him was the second baseman Daniel Murphy, whose sudden habit of walloping home runs has earned national attention. He foul-popped, to the loud relief of locals.

Go read the whole thing. It’s fantastic.

Hollywood is Exhausted

Remember when Hollywood fucked up that time, and did two big-budget volcano movies in the same year? Obviously Dante’s Peak was the superior of the two, but everyone who saw it experienced at least some thrill in seeing LA destroyed in the creatively-named Volcano, released only 2 months later.

Then, they did the same thing with earth-ending celestial impacts only a year later, as 1998 gave us both the slightly more plausible Deep Impact in May and the far more obnoxious Armageddon in July.

You see things like this, and you wonder “are they even trying?” I’m pleased to report that the answer is, at least much of the time, “No, not really.” Here’s this year’s PAIR of “fuck it, we’re out of ideas” films:

Exhibit 1:

On the heels of I have no idea what, we have two upcoming films about the two most famous and disturbing psychological experiments. Obviously, The Stanford Prison Experiement is about, well, the Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971. This one’s famous enough it’s even been riffed on in Veronica Mars, and in truth this isn’t even the first feature film to tackle it. (Trailer.)

The other famed experiment is, of course, the eponymous work of Stanley Milgram. The nature of the work (about obedience) was provocative enough that, as with Stanford, the upcoming Experimenter isn’t the first film based on it, but it’s the newest and biggest. Here’s the trailer.

Exhibit 2:

On a lighter (?) note, slasher inversion/dark comedies called Final Girl (trailer) and Final Girls (trailer) will be released soon despite their near-total name collision –something about which we’re sure the studios are SUPER happy.

What’s even MORE hilarious here is that they both star the same actor, a relative newcomer named Alexander Ludwig, whose agent surely knew better.

The films themselves are only superficially similar beyond the obvious trope-inversion aspects. The former is about the eponymous Final Girl (Abigail Breslin) who has been recruited as highly-trained bait to eliminate a cabal of murderous fratboys led by Ludwig. The latter is a (possibly) witty romp through slasher films and involves some teenagers being transported to a 1980s summer camp where, obviously, a slasher awaits (as does the lead’s mother, apparently a scream queen back in the day). This one looks like Wet Hot American Summer meets Cabin in the Woods, whereas the former is more Carrie meets Rambo.

Even so, you’d think someone would’ve adjusted one or both titles, no?

Karma?, or, The Small Business Trifecta

Last night, I noticed my bike’s saddle was broken. It probably got cracked in a paceline pile-up on a ride back in late August, but didn’t actually fail until my ride Sunday or last night. Either way, its supports are totally broken on one side, so it’s unusable for the Ride to the River this weekend.

Well, hell.

So I load up my bike to take it over to West End, and noticed the first bit of good luck today: my MS150 fundraising gift certificate finally showed up. I figured it for (part of) a new helmet, but under the circumstances it seemed clear I was about to turn it into a saddle instead and put off the helmet upgrade.

At the shop, my day improved again when they told me “We’ll just warranty that saddle. Go get another one of the wall.” Yeah, the saddle that came on my bike when I bought it LAST OCTOBER. Score one for using a local shop for sure.

While they installed the new saddle, I looked at helmets. I picked one that cost a little more than the gift cert covered, happy to supplement with cash to get a nicer lid. Well, never mind that; West End took the GC as full payment even though it only covered 75% of the cost. Score #2!

I rolled out of the shop having spent no actual cash, and headed to lunch at Hubcap. Ricky was there, and was excited to tell me all about the goings-on for his Galveston place. If you’ve run into him before, you know his excitement is contagious, so that was super fun. It got even MORE fun when my order mysteriously appeared on my table (vs. the window) well before I had any right to expect it. My suspicions were confirmed when they called the next number, which was still 7 tickets lower than the one I was holding.

My working theory is that I must’ve done something right I don’t remember doing.

Does the FBI actually chase any real bad guys?

The FBI has a long post-9/11 history of ginning up plots to foil; the pattern is generally “find an inept loner who may have said something weird online, and then entice him to take part in a ‘plot’”. The issue is, of course, that (a) the aforementioned loner is typically the only non-cop involved; and (b) in the absence of the fabricated plot, it’s exceedingly unlikely that these inept doofuses would have ever become involved in any domestic terror efforts at all.

But, hey, the Feds get headlines, and people get promoted, and in the absence of real plots people might start to wonder why we spend so much money on security, so it keeps happening. (As has been previously noted, if you’re in security, the absence of existential threats is itself an existential threat.)

Well, now we have something even worse. Turns out, that Chinese professor at Temple they arrested was never actually doing anything wrong, and the FBI could have known this from day one had they bothered to check their own evidence.

Temple University physics professor Xiaoxing Xi made headlines back in May, when he was indicted for allegedly sharing “sensitive” information with colleagues in China about a piece of laboratory equipment used in his superconductivity research. Xi maintained his innocence from the start. On Friday, he was vindicated: the U.S. Justice Department dropped the charges against him, with a vague statement about new information coming to light.

This “new information” came in the form of several sworn affidavits from leading scientists confirming that schematics Xi sent to Chinese scientists had nothing to do with the proprietary device. Apparently nobody involved in the investigation thought to run their case past knowledgeable scientific experts before bursting into Xi’s suburban home with guns drawn, ransacking his house, and leading him off in handcuffs in front of his wife and daughter.

I mean, come ON people! If you’re going to drag a man’s name through the mud, you have an obligation to be RIGHT.

Dept of Positive Changes


Screen Shot 2015 09 20 at 2 00 15 PM

is the graph of my cycling miles per week over time, as supplied by Strava.

I dislike the long, barren spot in the middle, but I love the trendline happening on the right. (I will also note how hacked off I am about the empty week there, in which every single ride that week was either rained out or logistically impossible. Grrrr.)

Oh, and 115.5 miles last week.

I’ve been furious all damn morning.

By now you’ve seen the #IStandWithAhmed hashtags, and know the basic story of a gifted young 14-year-old in Irving who made a clock to take to school and show his engineering teacher. (By the way, the presence of the phrase “engineering teacher” should tip you off that this is a relatively well-to-do part of Dallas.)

Some other teacher saw it, and decided that anything with a circuitboard and wires and a display must be a bomb, and so sent him to the principal’s office, despite Ahmed’s apparently incredulous and constant assertions that it was a clock.

The principal — some fuckwit named Dan Cummings, who should be hounded from education forever if there’s any justice in the world — could have taken one look at the electronics hobby project and realized the English teacher was an idiot, but instead decided that, he, too, needed to board the Racist Jackhole Express and involve the Irving police department.


If we lived in a world where calling the police is always a good idea, we might have hoped for at least one of THEM to realize what idiots the MacArthur teacher and principal were. In that world, Officer NotAnAsshole would have laughed in Danny’s face and sent Ahmed back to class.

This is, of course, not the world we live in. So OF COURSE the cops immediately arrested young Ahmed on one count of Making While Brown and one count of Being Smarter Than Us. And then frogmarched him off campus in handcuffs, I shit you not. Ahmed was eventually booked, fingerprinted, taken to juvenile detention, and suspended for three days, despite not actually having committed any legitimate infraction at all.

The cops, for their part, did eventually state that there would be no charges, which sounds magnanimous unless you’ve been paying attention at all. Expect a giant fucking lawsuit, but the real shame is that pitiful-excuse-for-educator Dan Cummings will pay no price, nor will the English teacher, nor will the just-doin’-my-job cops involved.

Popehat really nails it down here, where he begins

American lives are controlled by the thuggishly mediocre. The best measure of their control is this: when called out on their mediocre thuggery, they can comfortably double down.

Ahmed Mohamed, a bright and curious ninth-grader in Irving, Texas, learned that to his regret this week.

Double down is, of course, exactly what the thuggishly mediocre shitheels at Irving ISD have done, in a letter circulated to parents that emphasizes how heroic they were in having a nerdy freshman arrested for the crime of “making shit”.

Popehat continues:

My mother was a school administrator, and there are many decent and concerned school administrators. **But to be blunt, school administrators were generally not the kid who built his or her own clock at 14. (Cops were generally the kid who beat up the kid who built the clock.) ** (Emphasis added.)

Fuck those people.

Fortunately, a positive aspect of our world in 2015 is that the condemnation of this jackassery in Irving has been swift, broad, and nearly instantaneous, and includes high-profile participants from MIT, JPL, the Mythbusters, and a dude who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania. I hope the global shaming continues. I’d like to see someone with both a brain and a spine replace Cummings at Ahmed’s high school, but that seems like way too much to hope for. What we will get, I expect, is pro bono legal help in their inevitable suit, plus no end of scholarship and other offers from folks with similar backgrounds (either nerdy, foreign, or both) who want to help this kid out. So there’s that. And, in the absence of seeing Dan Cummings and his ilk forever consigned to pushing a broom in a Dallas reform school, it’s probably all we can really hope for.

There’s more here, and at BoingBoing.

A partial list of things of which our cat Wiggins does not approve.

  1. Being moved when sleeping perpendicular to the approved Plane Of Sleep in the bed, thereby crowding both humans and, sometimes, the other cat.

  2. Construction noises across the street, including but not limited to hammering (manual or nailgun); power tools; large equipment back-up beeps; large equipment in general; loud music.

  3. Awareness of, but not sight of, neighborhood cats just outside the front door. (Cats visible in the backyard are unremarkable.)

  4. Rain. Which is weird, because she lives in Houston, but her formative years were drought years.

  5. The absence of Mrs Heathen beginning at about 5pm each day.

  6. Being alone in a part of the house where there are no people, unless that room is the bedroom.

  7. Being with people in the wrong part of the house.

  8. Not being in your lap, sometimes.

  9. Being in your lap, sometimes.

  10. Having her nails trimmed.

  11. The other cat having her nails trimmed.

Disapproval in all cases is registered verbally, and, in some cases (e.g. #10), with vigorous squirming. Violence is never on the menu.

No, you don’t want to connect EVERYTHING.

People have been yammering about “The Internet of Things” for a long time now, probably dating back to the 1990s and Java and the idea of a fridge (e.g.) smart enough to know when you run out of milk. It’s a neat idea, but even moderately sophisticated software people see the problem immediately:

Every time you connect a device to the net and give it information, you’re trusting that manufacturer not to be stupid. If we can’t even trust phone and computer makers that implicitly, then why the hell do you think we ought to be trusting car makers or appliance vendors?

Look, information security is hard. There’s no goddamn reason you ought to trust your refrigerator with your Gmail password. There’s no reason to need a “smart” TV at all. Don’t buy a car with a wifi adapter, and be circumspect about turning on Bluetooth for anything but phone integration. That neat shit your friend can do with his Tesla? Yeah, it’s cool, but do you REALL think Detroit can do the same shit with the same level of execution? Christ, they can’t even make switches that don’t fail. Don’t ask them to do SOFTWARE.

Don’t connect shit to the Internet that doesn’t need to be connected to the Internet. You do not need to watch Netflix on your toaster. Trust me. I know things.

How you should feeding your cat

This guy did something pretty great:

So instead of feeding my cat, I hide these balls around the house…

This all started after I read an explanation of why cats go about repeatedly exploring the same areas: it’s partly to establish and survey their territory, but they’re also practicing ‘mobile’ hunting: moving about, being curious, and poking their noses around in the hopes of upsetting potential prey and finding a meal.

So what if my cat, while out on patrol, actually found its prey? Surely this would bring him one step closer towards a more fulfilled and self-actualized indoor kitty existence.

I imagined hiding little bowls of food around the house… then I imagined me actually refilling these bowls. Then I imagined having to move them around to different hiding spots, spilling, forgetting, and every so often, perhaps only after following a trail of ants, finding one undiscovered and rancid. Hmmm, maybe there’s a way to hide something else, a way to hide something other than food, a way to make something not-food = food…

Click through. It’s brilliant.

Do Not Miss This Play

From 25 September until 17 October, my friends at The Catastrophic Theatre will be producing my favorite play: Maria Irene Fornes’ The Danube.

The same people — director and cast, though I don’t know if puppets are involved this time — staged this play in Houston once before, with Infernal Bridegroom every bit of 15 years ago. I saw that performance, too, and reviewed it for a long-defunct local paper.

Because I am a packrat, I still have that review, which I’ve pasted in below. It’s amusing to me to read, because at the time none of these people were my friends. I hope it’s amusing to you as well, and encourages you to see this show. Performances are all at 8pm, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. All shows at Catastrophic are pay-what-you-can.

Let me be perfectly clear: prior to entering the Atomic Cafe on Friday night, I had no idea what I was going to see. All I knew was “IBP and Bobbindoctrin puppets,” which sounded at least interesting, so off I went. An article from American Theater posted in the lobby gave me a bit more background: The Danube is a piece by Maria Irene Fornes. (This is a name worth remembering.) Her work as described by the AT article makes her sound like a perfect match for Infernal Bridegroom – experimental, often challenging pieces that may well leave the audience just a bit (or more) bewildered. And, as if this wasn’t enough fun, the Danube includes puppets – making the collaboration with Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theater a natural development.

The Danube has its origins as a piece of found art; Fornes built the play around an old Hungarian language record. The initial scenes between Paul (Troy Schulze), Mr. Sandor (Charlie Scott) and Sandor’s daughter Eve (Amy Bruce) are enunciated and exaggerated to the point of parody. Add to this an intermittent voiceover from the language record itself preceding each line, and an odd sort of disconnection rules the scene. From these pattern sentences, though, Fornes weaves a simple enough story – at first. Paul is an American businessman sent to Budapest; he meets Mr. Sandor and Eve; courting ensures; eventually, Paul is called home, prompting them to marry, which essentially concludes the linear narrative – but not the play’s action. The pattern-sentence language-instruction motif fades (but never completely) in favor of a sort of Euro-film surrealism that grows into the outright bizarre before the play’s abrupt conclusion. Paul becomes ill; he may or may not have been conscripted. Everyone deteriorates dramatically, apparently afflicted with some grotesque palsy. There is plenty of goggle wearing, and frankly there’s just not enough of that in modern American drama. Two scenes are done with tiny puppets manned by the actors on a perfect miniature version of the stage, complete with smoke and light wafting from the floorboards.

So what’s happening here? Is it life during wartime? Is it a plague? What is Fornes up to? In the American Theater article (September, 2000), the author (Steven Druckman) suggests that “the best way to wrap your mind around the plays of Maria Irene Fornes is to abandon all hope of understanding them.” This is probably true. He goes on: “[Fornes] is for people who prefer passion to fashion, who prefer awe to wit. She is for those of us who don’t mind admitting that we’re still groping in the dark.”

Spot on, I think.

To allow this play to swirl around you is to experience it most fully and, ultimately, purely. Do not chase the plot, ticking off characters and events as if you were at a hockey game. There is ample time for reflection after the final curtain. Allow Fornes (and, by association, IBP director Jason Nodler and company) to assemble this thing on their own terms; you will be hard pressed to find this experience elsewhere. Certainly no one else in town will go this far from the beaten path. IBP is in fine, fine form here, aided in no small part by the collaboration with Bobbindoctrin. The small cast – Bruce, Schulze, Scott, and the irrepressible Kyle Sturdivant in four supporting roles – is well chosen. Schultze exudes the alien confidence of a businessman abroad when the U.S. ruled the world; Scott and Bruce are exemplars of a formal old-world charm. Sturdivant, when so called upon, delivers some of the few genuinely comic lines with scene-stealing aplomb – and his almost menacing monologue as a waiter is not to be missed. Costume, properties, and sound are all beyond reproach; the primary set pieces are beautiful drops painted by Bobbindoctrin. Small details throughout the production are universally solid, from the costumed set-changers to the upholstery on the puppet-stage furnishings. This is some of IBP’s finest work yet.

In a conversation with Nodler after the show, he mentioned that this is at least the third time he’s attempted to stage The Danube – and each prior time he cancelled the production when he feared it would miss the mark for some reason or another; that mark must certainly be met here. Nodler studied under Fornes in college, which no doubt drove his ambition for the play, and in turn informs his obvious pleasure with this show. He told anecdotes about the production, the play, and Fornes, and led my date and I backstage to show us the smoking apparatus used for the puppet stage. His excitement and enthusiasm for the play and production were infectious (and this from a director I have previously described as “grouchy”).

You will almost certainly not “understand” the Danube in the way you might understand a more conventional play. You may find yourself, as we did, unable to properly describe the work – or at least unable to do it justice – when you meet your friends for beer afterwards. You will use words like “postmodern” and “experimental” and “surreal,” but none of these will be equal to the task. It is true that Fornes seems to be playing games with narrative, but not in the traditional postmodern sense (if there is such a thing); there is no winking here. What there is seems best described by Druckman’s quote, above: the characters grope about in the dark for meaning, for understanding, just as we in the audience do. This is a splendid script and a strong production of the sort we don’t see too often in Houston. Do not miss this play.

Bye, Jon.

Last night, Jon Stewart finished up his astonishing 16 year run at The Daily Show.

I got nothing, really. I’ll miss that show horribly, and Stewart’s take on things in particular. He somehow managed to create an entirely new sort of program, largely because the actual media was too busy making noise and had abdicated their traditional role. I wrote this 13 years ago, on this site:

I just watched a fascinating dialog on the Middle East question that was both nuanced and interesting — and altogether free of bombast. Moreover, said dialog featured substantive contributions from both show host and guest. The show? Comedy Central’s Daily Show, which featured the New Yorker’s David Remnick as its guest this evening. A comedy show is the only place we can see discussion without some talking head going apo-goddamn-plectic over the sound of his own howling. Why is this? Contrast this with the softball handling Jay Leno gave Dick Cheney, and you’ll see what I mean.

What’s especially depressing, though, is that even though it was obvious people WANTED real discussion 13 years ago, the only places offering the kind of depth Stewart’s Daily Show provided today, in 2015, are spinoffs of his own program — Larry Wilmore and John Oliver in particular are doing spectacular work (and Oliver, on HBO and without sponsors to placate, is really flying high).

Much was made of Letterman’s retirement earlier this year, and much should have been, but Stewart’s departure is just as big a deal for many people in comedy. As the traditional talk show format aged, it was The Daily Show that became the must-watch show in the evenings, and in that way Stewart became the new Letterman, or the new Carson, for an entire generation.

Books of 2015, #AWholeBunch: In Which I Punt.

I’ve gotten terribly, terribly behind, so forgive the omnibus.

True Grit, by Charles Portis

Underrated, even after the spike in interest after the Coen film. It’s chock full of fantastic language, as in this description: “Not a day goes by but there comes some new report of a farmer bludgeoned, a wife outraged, or a blameless traveller set upon and cut down in a sanguinary ambuscade.” He is, of course, speaking of Oklahoma.

The Whites, by Richard Price

I was put on this by a pal (howdy, Frazer) after having bounced off Price before — I found him kind of a mess. Assured this was his best work despite being initially published under a pseudonym, I dove in. And found it wanting, again. Oh well.

Cyclops, by Clive Cussler

This is the one with the improbable plot, unconventional automobile, and unusual boats, when danger lurks but Dirk saves the day. Right.

Home, by Marilynne Robinson

I discovered, rather late, the enormous and humbling beauty of Gilead, and so I was pleased to discover there were other books that dealt with the same cast and time period, but from other points of view. Sadly, I found none of the stirring magic in Home that had so transfixed me in Gilead.

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Jesus, Neil, can you please learn to write endings? And, while you’re at it, plausible middles? Anathem and Reamde were so much better than his prior work that I had hope he’d gotten past his former foibles, but this was just kind of a waste. Andy Weir made a novel out of problem solving, and it’s like Neal took entirely the wrong lessons from it, because herein we receive long, involved descriptions of orbital mechanics, how to build in orbit, how to re-terraform the planet, and how to harness a comet, and goddamn near every word of it bored me to tears. And I’m a nerd.