Our Motto:

"All the analysis you want; none of the anal you don't."

More at . . .

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Recipe for Cultural Fail: One Part Murder, Two Parts Rape

If recent events prove nothing else to the world, it's that Americans are effeminate b*tches.  I refer, naturally, to the deluge of predictably worthless public reaction following the shootings in Aurora, Colorado.

Of course, I mean "effeminate" in a very specific way.  Not in terms of having two X chromosomes or regularly shaving one's legs.  More in a sort of "thinking-that-'Fifty-Shades-of-Grey'-is-something-other than-a-steaming-pile-of-dreck" way; a way that reinforces and insanely celebrates our culture of debility.

James Holmes
One persistent theory of gender relations is that females appear to be, on average, more passive than males because evolutionary biological pressures made them the default caregivers--therefore far more concerned with maintaining a stable child rearing environment than males, who were therefore free to pursue a more aggressively transactional approach to their undertakings.

I buy that, to a degree.  With the caveats of extreme individual variation around a statistical mean, and the awareness that current technological and demographic trends seem to mitigate against this being an immutable physically determinate characteristic.  In fact, I'd say there's a good case to be made that the American impotence exhibited following the Aurora shootings is a clear symptom of the devaluation of of the transactional, male principle in contemporary culture.

Here's what I mean:  following the death of those 12 people in Aurora, the airwaves were filled to bursting with panty-wetting, tear-filled sobs of helpless terror that would have embarrassed a North Korean anchorperson.  The Romney and Obama campaigns both suspended activity after issuing suitably conventional statements of feigned piety, as good girls will, but there was no shortage of hacky partisans publishing one of  the two ur-varieties of opportunistic polemical garbage:

1.  The killer is a symptom of our out-of-control politics, being clearly a member of some dodgy right  or left wing roup.

2.  OMG!  We have to stop this from EVER HAPPENING AGAIN!!! Which means either:

     a.) Banning all sales of any item capable of causing a bruise anywhere near the order of magnitude
          rendered by a Nerf(tm) football, or

     b.) Subjecting anyone passing through the United States to an incredibly invasive series of psychological
          and physical examinations, possibly on a secret and ongoing basis.

From the transactional, masculine point of view, all of this is clearly an unproductive waste of time.

Politically, this election will probably go down in history as the high point (or low point, depending upon your point of view) of American consensus.  Never before has the American public had to endure such a farcically hopeless choice between two bland and barely distinguishable clones. 

The key platform of the Republican candidate, whose drab monotone voice is a dead giveaway that his handler's pack him each night in a cardboard box filled with styrofoam peanuts, is repeal of the health care law that he pioneered.  And the supposed theme of the Democratic candidate is the expiration of the millionaire tax cuts that he himself actively campaigned for, over the objections of his own caucus, who had veto-proof majorities in both houses when he signed them into law in 2010.

The fact that these two eunuchs are considered to be the most powerful politicians in the U.S. is a clear indication that America is not even trying politically.

And the obviously doomed prescription of preventative measures just reinforces the point.  In case you hadn't noticed, Humanity has several millenia worth of laws outlawing murder on the books.  Unsurprisingly, the deterrence value of these laws has proven mainly effective on the law abiding segments of the population.

As a matter of fact, there is a considerable body of evidence to the effect that Americans are, in an absolute sense, completely indifferent to murder and sociopathy.  Just hours after the Aurora shootings, it was announced that an even larger number of people--14 immigrant workers--were killed on a Texas highway, and I guarantee you neither Romney nor Obama issued any statement about that.

Only a handful of commentators would have noted that Americans' poor diets and ordinary traffic obstacles are far more statistically dangerous than any firearm. 

Also, to my knowledge, absolutely zero percent of them even bothered to ask the practical question of how injured survivors are going to PAY for their medical treatment.  Didn't we just go through a near civil war about this very issue?  If ever there was a viscerally engaging illustration of the non-discretionary character of health care, and the utter necessity for America to adopt universal single payer coverage, this was it.  We may not be able to outlaw danger, but we certainly CAN do better in dealing with the aftermath.

Actually, we Americans love murder and mayhem when it happens in Afghanistan or the Palestinian territories--provided it serves to boost our perceived sense of control over politically volatile client states and gas prices.

So what's up with this circle jerk of totally empty gesturing?  I say it's an example of the stereotypically female behavior of "talking to be heard" rather than "talking to be understood". 

The stereotypically masculine analysis of the events in Aurora admits that they present us with two broad categories of problems:

1.  Problems which can be reasonably be solved, such as providing cost effective health care.

2.  Problems which will never be solved--such as eradicating existential evils, whatever that might mean, or preventing petty disagreements and all remotely possible physical dangers.

Proceeding from this analysis, a male would conclude by passing discussion on those items which can never be solved and focusing all of one's energies on practical remedies for those problems which can be solved.  But what Americans have opted to do instead, is engage in an embarrassing b*tch fest about what a scary nasty world it is out there.  This will definitely not give provide us with even the slightest bit of practical relief.

The unbalanced, mostly effeminate American isn't interested in solving problems.  What this whinging accomplishes is nothing more than a "relationship tweak", merely acclimatising us to the incompetence and abuse from our supposed institutional "leaders" like the crocodile-tear shedding Willard Romney and Barry Obama.  This is the actual point--avoiding meaningful confrontation and making Americans feign affectionate intimacy with their rapists.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sh*t I Personally Guarantee You Will Never, EVER Hear Said Aloud, Even If You Live to Be One Thousand Years Old

The French composer Claude Debussy is quoted as saying that, "Music is the space between the notes".  I think that's a very apt recognition of the shared responsibility between artist and audience in unearthing the latent content of any piece of art, and I very much like it.  Make your work too overtly programmatic, and you end up with stale self-parody, a la Norman Rockwell.  Overburden it with too many layers of obscure, self-referential ciphers, like Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake", and risk alienating your most enthusiastic audience.

But if you have a lot to say, it can really be difficult to avoid the "Finnegan" trap.  The very fact that you are capable of generating enough observations worthy of communication, of making very fine distinctions in kind and degree, springs from a hypersensitivity that can seem emotionally overwhelming, and very much at odds with one of the inviolable principles of effective communication itself:  clarity.

This is where a solid understanding of the rhetorical ecology will come in handy.  In order to be truly effective, you need to be able to "play the music between the notes", which is to say, have an appreciation for the various types of person who will read your work the context in which it will be read, today, tomorrow and 200 years from now, and what they will be looking to draw from it.  And you need to accept the fact that some of your strongest, most affecting points will not be articulated by you, but by your critics.

A lot of creative types say that they never read critical reviews of their work because it over-intellectualizes the process and drives from them the passionate commitment they need to perform with conviction.  That may be their reasoning, but I say it's a pretty sad commentary on their perspicacity and emotional stability.  Rather, I would ask them, "How can you claim to be committed to your craft if you don't care how it's interpreted?"  On the contrary, I say that artistic conviction itself is not possible without engaging a work's limitations and repercussions.  The relationship between the critic and the artist is ultimately symbiotic, not adversarial.

The same applies to polemical speech, although it seems not to be generally understood or acknowledged.  Many poor fools have allowed themselves to be deluded by the outwardly combative character of electoral politics into believing that all one can hope to achieve from the analysis of political speech is a depressing laundry list of nominal yet irrelevant "facts" that come no nearer to establishing any objectively true proposition other than the speaker is determined to capture your vote.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

You, as critic, play the most vital role in forming the prism through which the prevailing discourse is viewed.  And you have some powerful yet deceptively simple techniques close at hand and totally free of charge.  For example, the technique of focused absurdity.

By imagining a statement that anyone can agree WILL NEVER BE SAID in the context portrayed, you, as critic, contribute to the civilizing of mankind, identifying, revealing and rolling back the limes[1] of dark misunderstandings cast by society's "leaders".  An artistically cast bit of unadulterated critical blasphemy is probably your best opening gambit to establish what yer man did NOT mean to say--and thereby better define the limits of what he DID mean to say.

Just how long it takes you and your interlocutor to decide precisely how much of this "non-statement" is due to objective falsity or strategic opacity will depend on your creativity, generosity and intelligence--but at least you will have established one incontrovertible point of agreement.  And acquired an appreciation for the wealth of complementary and sometimes counterintuitive rhetorical tools available to you.
So in this spirit, I offer to you, a small sample of sh*t which I personally guarantee you will never EVER hear said aloud:

"I am personally responsible, as an individual, for foisting a dishonest criminal governor upon the state of Wisconsin.  I should have realized that my critics were right--I am a bland, insincere drone next to whom a flabby, balding felon like Scott Walker seems positively glamorous.  There is a reason I received no major union endorsements during the primary--because I actually used Scott Walker's law to undermine the public union workers whose cause I unconvincingly co-opted in an attempt to advance my personal career.  I should have known from the beginning that my candidacy would be seen by Wisconsin voters as the betrayal of what had been a populist uprising on behalf of workers' rights into a cynical rehash of my perennial failed partisan ambitions."
          Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee and three-time losing gubernatorial candidate

"Throughout my career, my most valuable asset has been and remains the partisan Democratic voter.  The tens of millions of dollars in out-of-state contributions from a murky cabal of trust fund brats and ideologues didn't hurt, but I never could have done it, never could have survived the furore over my crypto-fascist endrun around parliamentary procedure if loyal Democrats hadn't gone out of their way to identify the least charismatic man in the lower 48 and run him against me."
        Scott Walker, once-and-future governor of Wisconsin

"The most daringly radical aspect of my career has been the unimaginative and transparently stupid nature of my policy positions.  In fact, I offer nothing that has not been in the programme of each and every administration for the last thirty years--just more tax cuts for the wealthy, increased military spending and a reduction of governmental services.  Christ!  Even my hair's been lacquered into a frozen torpor redolent of Ronald Reagan, Brill Creme and the vague nursing home perfume of Ben Gay and stale pee."
       Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Committee on Budget

"I'm just an average Joe.  Yeah, I attended a few college-level classes, and possibly even received formal credit for them, but I only paid the bare-minimum attention to history, economics and philosophy.  Mostly because I don't believe there is such a thing as 'objective truth'--only a consensus experience of reality determined by whatever the guy shouting loudest is saying at any given moment.  But can you blame me?  I'm just one, very very small man.  It's simply not realistic to expect me to buck any major trends.  However, I am willing to vote for someone who claims HE is--especially if he's not really.  That guy's like a hero to me."
      Average voter, Anywhere, USA

"I know I'm doing wrong, but I just can't help myself.  I mean, you can see where I'm coming from, right?  From the Right I'm dealing with upfront attacks on my very existence, and on my "Left" I'm saddled with a partner of obvious bumbling incompetence and dubious moral fibre.  I've taken it on the chin for "Lefty" time and time again, and almost certainly will again.  But I just can't abandon this arrangement--acting with real moral commitment takes too much effort.  With any luck my death will be a quick and painless one."
      Any labor union leader actually considering the endorsement of a mainline Democratic candidate

"Sh*t.  I really backed myself into a corner with all that 'Hopey/Changey' cr*p.  Only so many campaign promises you can break, so many plausible coverstories you can spin for the incompetent squandering of legislative majorities or administrative blunders before it all comes back to bite you in the *ss . . . . But I can still throw a few strategically timed wet sops like some non-binding temporary policy implementation orders.  I have to somehow bank on the fact that this other dude's no better . . . . You know what they say:  No one ever went bankrupt underestimating the intelligence of the American voter.  Guess there is some "Hope" there after all."
     Barack Obama

"What the f*ck does being rich have to do with knowing how to run an economy?  First off, I started off from a position of inherited priviledge--not as some kind of freak working his way through a sh*tty community college as a dead-end factory drone.  I don't know how to operate a dog carrier much less an economy.  Second of all, the very notion of private profiteering is intrinsically inimical to the notion of the public good.  The textbook definition of money is that it's a unit of account, store of value and medium of exchange.  How is the value of a medium of exchange supposedly enhanced by hoarding?"
    Mitt Romney, presumptive nominee of the Republican Party

"Y'know, I really am a kind of a genius.  For serial here, folks.  Now I don't mean in the sense of a super acute understanding of economics or the finer points of constitutional law--clearly I don't.  I mean in the sense of providing my followers with a robust, comprehensive world view.  See, by painting all of society's ills as the result of some dark, external force's hidden cabals, and prescribing a programme of opaque private institutions to combat them, I totally avoid the trap of creating a falsifiable hypothesis.  If the proof of your opposition's mendacity is the mere fact that they don't agree with you, how can you ever be proven wrong? "
     Ron Paul, libertarian candidate for the Republican Party nomination

"It's really a wonder that I haven't been tarred and feathered and run out of town yet.  The objective evidence is that my regime of deregulation and lowering tax on society's wealthiest has lead to a diversion of capital to unproductive speculative schemes like automated algorithmic trading, massive unemployment and severe declines in economic and defense infrastructures like education, communications and energy networks.  The ineptly top-down character of my policies of concentrating wealth and centrally planning the economy through an oligarchic elite is actually more reminiscent of the rotten carcas of the old Soviet system I accuse the opposition of supporting than anything else."
     Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform

"Yeah, yeah.  I know.  I said government regulators were an even bigger threat to the financial system than rampant fraud undertaken by taxpayer insured private banks.  And yes, my bank racked up at least $ 3 billion, possibly as much as $6 billion in speculative trading losses in a scheme so convoluted in its wackiness that it took three weeks to explain it to ME--even though I billed myself as the very model of an on-top-of-it global risk manager.  But on the other hand, what can you realistically do about it?"
     Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase

"As far back as I can trace my family, we've all been peasants.  Every mother's son of 'em, on each and every branch.  The world been f*cked up since time began and there ain't a good g*d-damn any peasant could ever do about it.  You can git outta line to 'fight the man', and 'assert your human dignity' if you like.  In fact, I encourage you to.  That just puts me one place closer in line for the *ss kissing.  The oily, nutty flavor of the corn in that guy's sh*t is really beginning to grow on me."
     Average American


[1]Latin for "border" or "boundary", specifically chosen over any English cognates in this context for the connotative aura of intellectual abstraction and exercise that it imparts.  NOT the f*cking citrus fruit, you g*ddamned chimp.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why Can't Real Life Be More Like Double Dragon?

"People get really tired of having all the tough villains front-loaded against them and resent getting short changed on play time because some fat mouth-breather's hogging it all with a stack of quarters that could knock out a Clydesdale. If that's all on offer, can you blame folks for staying home?"

Games are the repositories of our culture's most primal values.  As ostensible objects of complete fancy, they (can) deftly sidestep at will many of the extraneous ambiguities that force us to compromise our deepest values and thus help give clearest expression to our highest ideals. 

For starters, game consequences are not so final or existential as they are in real life.  You're typically given at least 3 initial 'lives' to perform strategy experiments and become comfortable with play options before you're fatally croaked.  And even then you're usually offered the option to restart the game.  You have an opportunity to weigh options with some level of maturity and develop a play style that suits you personally.

Not so in the real world.  Even if you're bright enough to have intuited that Ayn Rand and Niccolo Machiavelli wrote the cheat book at a fairly young age, you're faced with the ugly reality that there will be no restarts available for you.  Mainly because that fat kid who breathes through his mouth will just keep shoving quarters in the machine before you can get anywhere near it.

I'm sure I'm dating myself a bit here by referring to such an archaic feature of video gaming culture, but bear with me.  Way back in your great-grandfathers day, when I could still count my birthdays on my fingers and toes, most people encountered video games within public establishments known as 'arcades', large buildings or mall outlets where the hottest new games were available to anyone to play.  They'd be stacked next to each other at intervals of 3 feet or so, in mammoth cabinets that must strike anyone born after 1980 as hilariously kitsch symbols of antiquated technology, more akin to a Medieval armoire than a modern video game console.

Equality and entrepreneurship in the era of the video arcade
But a little context might be in order here:  the notion of selling copies of these games for play within the privacy of one's home hadn't been thought of yet--or at least wasn't yet feasible on a mass scale, as not enough people owned PC's or consoles.  As the marketing folks like to say, there was not yet an "installed base" from which to launch this type of distribution strategy.

So we were forced, more or less, to play the things wherever we could encounter them, generally in areas susceptible to high levels of youth foot traffic, like shopping malls.  This was a capitalist venture, no doubt about it.  Asymmetries of availability are the single indispensable enabling feature of capitalism. 

But the asymmetries weren't quite so glaring then, as the video game technology itself was something of a novelty that game producers, publishers and arcade owners had yet to fully explore and exploit.  If you young 'uns are having a hard time grasping the severity of this point, let me point out that Tetris (tm) was considered an exciting new property at the time.

Hundreds of small software and hardware development companies were entering the highly competitive fray almost daily.  Given the relatively low base of technology that I'd referred to earlier, almost anybody with enough pluck, brains and natural inclination could make a truly significant contribution to the state of the art.  Graphics, game play and even fundamental formatting (e.g., 1st person shooters, role playing, 3rd person strategy, etc.) were evolving at an exponentially increasing pace.

Of course, Joe Blow wouldn't have been able to turn his programming hobby into a commercially viable venture without capital.  Trust fund brats have never formed a significant percentage of programmers, so embarking upon an entrepreneurial venture has always represented a real personal risk.  The opportunity cost of stepping outside the settled career track of a more mature industry would have aborted these innovations outright were it not for a vibrant capital market that still needed to take risks on developing new markets and technologies, instead of relying on rents from automatic day trading algorithms.  Although the U.S. had only 6,000 independent banks in 2005, there had been nearly 10,000 in 1987--or a capital market roughly 66% larger than today.[1]

The availability of capital allowed a fairly broad spectrum of folks to go into arcade ownership, too.  So even though as a group arcade owners had a near monopoly on the availability of video games, they still had to make serious efforts to respond to public opinion and preferences.  If they wanted to beat out the competition, maximize revenues per square foot of their premises, they'd have to identify and obtain the hottest new games as soon as possible, and maintain an optimal diversity of titles.  If you walked by an arcade in 1989 and the only open games you saw were Whack-A-Mole(tm) or Pacman(tm) you'd just keep on walking to the next arcade.  To stay viable, they had to keep just one step ahead of popular trends, titillating their audiences with novelty and challenge--and not let the game be hogged all day by some lardy mouthbreather.

This was reflected in the core structure of the games themselves.  In order to entice newcomers designers had to ride the edge of players' comfort zones, providing just enough challenge to engage, without alienating them with impossible obstacles or clumsy, unfriendly game interface.  In my youthful recollections, this principle was nowhere more clearly reflected than in the carefully calibrated levels of difficulty of the level bosses in the hit game Double Dragon, a scrolling beat 'em up from the early golden age of video gaming.

Enter the dragon:  not perfect, but at least reasonable
The original version of Double Dragon came out in 1987 and spawned several highly popular sequels and spin-offs, including Double Dragon II in 1988.  To be sure, it was crude by today's standards, not only in terms of graphic resolution and the realization of the game world--movement was impossible outside of a narrowly defined track bounded by dystopic inner city landscapes and rusting industrial machinery and grim chain-link fences--but also in terms of play options. 

I think both playable characters, Billy Lee and Jimmy, were basically interchangeable clones with no distinguishing features beyond the colour of their hair and generic dojo outfits.  I think they may have had a total of 5 combat maneuvers--6 tops, if you want to include the ability to toss barrels at an enemy, on the rare screen where the game world was articulated enough to allow you to actually interact with it.

But at least the developers had the sense to stock each successive stage of game play with opponents of appropriate difficulty.  Level one offered you the beer-bellied, punch-throwing Brunov to hone your skills against before you encountered the monstrous Big Boss Willy wielding an automatic rifle in level five.  That graduated approach, and the cooperative 2-player option, gave you enough time to familiarize yourself with the various joystick and button options required to realize your character's full potential.

I don't think that's a trivial point.  These developers, arcade owners and players knew that they were just scraping the surface of the graphic wizardry the technology would later provide, so they had to come up with a basic structural paradigm that closely tracked our cultural notions of fairness and engagement.  If they wanted to draw you in, they'd have to present some villains that at least looked like bad-asses before you got to know their quirks; and they were never gonna keep you hooked unless they gave you a reasonable shot at defeating them.

So as crude as Double Dragon may seem today to kids raised on cinematic wonders the likes of L.A. Noire, the game clearly possessed a level of charm that the current crop of political and economic elites don't. 

Double flaggin': why current economic and political trends suck in comparison
I already alluded to the current hyper-concentration of capital in the nation's largest banks.  I don't think it'd take you long to draw up your own list of cultural casualties this restriction of opportunity has occasioned.  For starters, the very concept of a mom-and-pop grocery store or clothing outlet is now an absurdity clearly out of the question.  You can't blame radical new cabbage technologies or shoe paradigms for that.

But I think the lack of options in the political arena is even worse.  Even if you're able to convince yourself that there are real, significant differences between the plastic Mitt Romney and the automotonic Barack Obama with regard to a small, select set of policies, you have to admit that neither major party offers very exciting game play or meaningful challenges for the voter.

Which lemon did you pick:  Gingrich, Santorum or Romney?
The Republican primary was the most savagely futile game ever played.  The base essentially tore itself apart rooting for the one-dimensional Rick Santorum or comically ineffectual Newt Gingrich.  If I had to draw up a video gaming metaphor for those two non-entities, I'd say that Santorum's signature move would be to constantly shoot himself in the foot upon down-down-down-right-right-right, and Gingrich's would be to perpetually punch himself in the nuts upon up-up-up-right-right-right.

Hardly a surprise then that trust-funder Mitt Romney took the day, despite having a game vocabulary no more sophisticated than left-right-left-right.

Did the 2010 mid-term elections reveal Obama as a broken "leader"?

What of the great Barack Obama, then?  The story there is even sadder.  Even some of the reviewers who were most enthusiastic about him upon his initial release have admitted that the actual game play is far less varied and challenging than the promotional trailers suggested.  In fact, the whole national Democratic Party franchise seems so disappointed that they can't interest enough people in a primary.  The general election this fall looks to be a grim duke 'em out between two equally unappealing titles that haven't changed a lick since 1988.

L to R:  Barrett, Falk, Vinehout, La Follette
The situation in Wisconsin's Democratic gubernatorial primary offers a little more prospect of actual engagement, however.  There are four candidates on the May 8 ballot, and while 2 of them don't have the name recognition or endorsements to be considered contenders, there is a real tete-a-tete brewing between front runners Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee, and Kathleen Falk, former county executive of Dane County.

Distinctions might be lost on Republicans who haven't yet taken the time to scout out the opposition, but they are real.  Barrett, the former U.S. congressman and twice-failed Democratic candidate for governor clearly represents the party establishment.  He readily acknowledges his close relationship with Obama, "regaling" (not "regurgitating"?) audiences with his Super Bowl Day attendance at His Majesty's court.

While Kathleen Falk isn't some kind of freakish video game vixen with lightening-bolt attacks, she does represent a true contrast with Barrett.  Her entire career has been focused on state and local offices, including Wisconsin Attorney General.  She has garnered the endorsement of AFL-CIO, the largest umbrella labor union in the state, and a particularly valuable attribute considering that the current recall elections owe their very existence to Scott Walker's failed attempts to destroy unions.

Recent polls give Barrett a double-digit lead over Falk for the nomination.  Electoral politics (as opposed to actual governance policy) is a bit of a black box, to some extent, due to the heavily subjective nature of the voters' preferences.  So I maintain that what propels a candidate to success in an internal, primary election should not be taken unthinkingly to be indicative of their chances in a general election.  My gut instinct is that, despite, or maybe because of, Falk's limited connections to the highest levels of the state and national Democratic machines, she is actually the best candidate.

But I'm absolutely clear of one thing: This Wisconsin Democratic thing is a helluva lot more engaging than the rope-a-dope operation Walker has rigged up for himself.  Aside from policy matters, even if you aren't offended by what nearly 1 million recall petition signers seem to feel is cheating on his part, you have to admit that the Wisconsin Republican Party hasn't offered up a particularly wide range of options:  You can choose from either Scott Walker, criminal defendant, or Scott Walker, tool of East Coast establishment pols.

Chris Chrisite:  East Coast pol, Walker fan and mouth breather
You'd think that the very real prospect of Walker's term being cut short by jail time would prompt some more committed Republicans to set up a contingency plan, offer a variety of challenges to the Democrats, or at least test their own mettle a bit.  Instead they're lying down without a fight, locked into a disappointingly known quantity with little room for maneuver.

People get really tired of having all the tough villains front-loaded against them and resent getting short changed on play time because some fat mouth-breather's hogging it all with a stack of quarters that could knock out a Clydesdale[2].  If that's all on offer, can you blame folks for staying home?

[1] Table 1, page 2, "Changes in the Size Distribution of U.S. Banks 1960 to 2005", by Hubert P. Janicki and Edward Simpson Prescott, available at the linked document on the Federal Reserve Bank.

[2] Read here about how over $ 8 million or roughly 65% of Walker's total contributions came from out of state--with approximately 74% of his individual (i.e., non-institutional) donors not being Wisconsinites.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why Nobody Cares What You Think (And What You Can Do About It)

Let me start off by stipulating that I am TOTALLY in your corner, homes.  I completely feel your pain, the frustration of having to repeat even the simplest proposition over and over and over (and over) again and just not being heard.  It's a real cross to bear, no?

But we can't just drop it because some lunkhead refuses to see sense.  We've got a point here, and even if we personally are not inclined to waste our time on trying to educate some feeble-minded half-wit, the integrity of our position is at stake.  It's not like we can just abandon ship in midstream here.  Not without seeming to concede our point to some feckless, uneducated buffoon, anyhow.

I'm sure that's what most of the problem is here.  These people just don't have the smarts or technical background or personal experience to see things our way.  After all, they say, "No sense, no feeling."  That HAS to be why they seem to absorb round after round of our impeccably crafted logical salvos and still keep coming back parroting the same tired old chestnuts in response, as if they hadn't heard a thing we've said.

Not that this is very comforting or useful.  I'm sorry.

Yet maybe there is another way around this thing.  I've toyed around with this notion for a while, and it's still sort of germinating, but this is probably as good a time as any to bring it up.  In fact, this may be the PERFECT time to bring this up--cross-pollination of our ideas could just beef this thing up into something workable.  Something that can take leg and really get the show back on the road, if you know what I mean.

What we need to do is streamline the process--not waste another decade of our lives trying to educate willfully ignorant morons on how to work the existing process.  The undeniable fact is that, whether through malice of incompetence, they've never been productive members nor will they ever be.  Not that we really need them to.  Because, as I've let on, there IS another way around this problem.

What am I talking about?  Choke points, me dear boy, choke points. 

No, not around their necks, ha ha!  That's a good one, chief!  No, not around their necks.  It's an approach with a certain undeniable appeal, true, but not terribly efficient.  Very labor intensive, you know.  And it generally only stokes up their wacky protests in the short term.  Probably gives them an attention and glamor that their ideas wouldn't be able to earn, if they had to play it out on the level field of rational, informed public debate.  No, not the most efficient way to go about it.

What I'm talking about is looking at the problem systemically, understanding how the world really works, and reserving our efforts for just the most responsive bits, the "choke points", if you will.

You and I are men of the world.  We know how this show is set up, a lot better than most, I dare say.  So why have we been wasting our lives trying to milk the cow by its horns?  That pack of ignorant louts may believe they've a right to participate.  And on paper maybe they have.  Let them continue to think that, I say.  That doesn't give them a veto on what we have to think, if you catch my drift.

There are probably only five people in any given system whose opinion really counts for anything:  the guy setting the agenda, the guy counting the votes, the guy assigning committee posts, the guy doling out the budgeted cash, and the guy recording the minutes.  Anyone else can hang, as far as we're concerned, right?  We only care about results.

What's that?  Yeah, I heard you: on the surface that's not a lot of comfort.  You're right--they're all held in the bag by the other side.  No, ordinary guys like us don't get invited to their parties.  Yes, I agree with you.  There is less than zero chance that either one of us will ever get invited to any of their summer homes in the Hamptons or fancy-schmancy Hollywood soirees.  Gold Coast elites, the lot of 'em.  I think you have to be a registered Mayflower descendant five times over or something before they even let you attend one of their fund raiser dinners.

But what I'm saying is that we don't have to.  We don't have to befriend them, we don't have to persuade them, we don't have to buy them.  Sh*t, we may not even have to talk to them.  All we have to do is keep them from talking to one another--at least in private.  Get where I'm coming from?

The other side thrives on secrecy, stealth and thuggery.  That's how they're able to successfully (on their terms) complete their plots and totally bypass our side.  While our dumb*sses (no offense) have been trying to play by the rules, behaving honorably, and watching the committee hearings like hawks, they've been leading us by the nose, because all the real action goes on sub rosa.  We win an election?  They throw out a procedural roadblock.  We get around it through an administrative regulatory action?  They tie it up in court.  We force their hand by appealing to a superior court?  They sick their goons on our grandmothers trying to intimidate us.  There is literally no measure so low, so deceptive, vile and despicable that those bugs wouldn't resort to it given the chance.

THAT, mon frere, is exactly how we get them.  All we have to do is light up those dark corners, no?  We've already established that they can't win on the grounds of fair play.  And we know that there are really only five moving parts in the system.  So why don't we just go in and light that m*ther f*cker up with a freakin' 2,000 watt HMI?  Let's see how they like us then, the smug bastards!

I say that each of the five aforementioned empty suits be required to wear a welded iron collar containing a GPS tracking tracking unit, spycam, microphone and strategically placed generator capable of delivering a 50mA electric current, all by remote control.  Pretty freakin' brilliant, eh?  Let's see the rotten trash throw out a line of baloney to tide them over until the next election cycle with 300 million people with their fingers on the trigger of THAT!

Well, maybe it doesn't have to be 50mA exactly.  That could be lethal.  We don't trade in death, only justice.  It only needs to be strong enough to get their attention.  Maybe only a couple hundred volts.  Just enough to remind 'em who's boss, eh?

As a matter of fact, we probably don't want it to be lethal.  Returning to where we began, so to speak, we're only trying to make an intellectual point.  And you know better than me that it is possible to take a thing too far.  If you do any permanent physical harm in so crude a way as that, you're only going to encourage the loonies to crawl out of the woodwork to oppose you even harder.  Take our eyes off the ball.  As the brilliant Sun Tzu said in "The Art of War":

"Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness.  Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness.  Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate."

Which sentiment again underlines the genius of my plan.  The collars can easily be wired in a way that will only activate them when a minimum threshold number of users press the button.  Because the trigger requires mass, remote action by a very large number of individuals, there's a diffusion of responsibility effect that takes the heat off any single person, keeping them from feeling too guilty to act and too anonymous to target.  Hell, for all we know it just might convince one or two from the other side to get off their *ss and do the right thing for once.  Pansies.

And number two, but maybe more importantly: here's the freakin' democracy the other side is always so desperately whining for.  Please tell me how great Senator Bumblef*ck from the other side is gonna look when he's seen to stall public debate on a measure that will unquestionably provide a level of transparency and immediacy to the political process that the Founding Fathers only dreamed of!  And at a relatively trivial cost, too.  I'd really like to know what fancy rhetorical rabbit he'd pull out of his hat to counter that one!

What's that?  A downside?  Eh, I don't know.  I suppose everything comes at a price.  If it means that a few of our own boys sh*t themselves now and then due to a poorly timed jolt of electricity through the nervous system, so be it.  It'd probably have to happen at some point, even if our side is behaving in its usual, meticulously honorable and ethical manner.  Even if only as a token gesture, just to convince the rubes on the other side of our integrity.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The “Curses o’ Whoredom”: Rome’s History Turns Into Wisconsin’s Misery In Phase 3 of The Madison Uprising

“Elections may be lost by failing to energize the base, but they are only won by charming non-ideological voters who form the majority.  Milwaukee and Madison are the state’s most left-leaning cities, but in the eyes of Wisconsin’s rural and suburban majority, they are also the darkest pits of Babylonish whoredom.”

Caligula:  a career model for the modern statesman?
The wheels seem rapidly to be coming off the runaway freight train that was the effort to recall troubled Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.  Nearly1,000,000 people affixed their names and addresses to a petition to initiate the unprecedented recall procedures against Walker.  But as of late April, Walker is polling at least 5 % HIGHER than his most likely opponent, Milwaukee’s mayor, Tom Barrett.  WTF?

Here is a brief recap of events since I last wrote about the Madison Uprising:

1.   Walker appointees refused to cooperate with a Federal John Doe investigation into Republican campaign violations.  To date several minions have been charged with felonies ranging from appropriation of public assets to promote Walker’s candidacy, to embezzlement of funds intended for the surviving families of veterans in the Afghan and Iraq conflicts, to enticing underage boys into sexual relationships over the internet.  Walker made some attempts to distance himself from the actions underlings took on his behalf, but those were undermined by the revelation that he had retained legal counsel from a firm renowned for its specialty in defending against white collar criminal cases.

2.   Waukesha County clerk Kathy Nickolaus resigned in her capacity as elections supervisor under severe public pressure.  Diligent readers may recall the Signs And Wonders attendant upon Nickolaus’ miraculous production of just barely the required number of votes to overturn the originally called results in the State Supreme Court race between JoAnne Kloppenberg and Nickolaus’ former boss, and Scott Walker darling, David Prosser.  No, the proximate causes of Nickolaus’ ouster didn’t include the broken seals, incorrect tracking batch numbers and torn ballot bags which were discovered during a contentious recount proceeding in the Kloppenberg race, but in the complete breakdown in the process of certifying the results of the recent Republican presidential primary.  Who’d have thought?  Public outrage does count for something, but only when it’s the outrage of Mitt Romney.

3.    Perhaps not incidentally, the self same Justice Prosser is currently the subject of disciplinary proceedings related to his alleged physical assault of another Supreme Court justice in chambers during deliberations.

4.   A Federal court has overturned the redistricting bills pushed through by Walker this last legislative session.  The court was unambiguous in decrying the GOP-drawn map as an effort to disenfranchise Milwaukee-area ethnic minorities.  In another case bearing upon voting rights, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has delayed implementation of Walker's controversial voter ID law until after the recall election, saying it will not be able to complete an adequate review before then.

5.   A Federal court has also overturned as unconstitutional many of the provisions of Walker’s stealth, union-busting bill that gave birth to this nest of monsters to begin with.  Critical union certification and funding provisions of that bill have been defeated, which is a big plus, but, pending possible repeal through the Wisconsin Legislature, severe limits regarding the scope of union negotiations remain.

This last point is a big (but note sole) cause of my discomfort.  Because, in my mind, it is a harbinger of doom for the Walker recall effort—though NOT for the reason most commenters think.

Veni, Vidi . . .
The preliminary procedural effort, the campaign to obtain 540k signatures to authorize the recall election, was in and of itself a spectacular and unqualified success.  Despite misgivings of professional pundits about the rarity of recall proceedings, and the timing of the campaign during the winter holidays, which typically curb turn-out at outdoor events of this sort, nearly million people signed the petition.  That means that, as of the dates they signed the petition, roughly 10% more voters wished to halt Scott Walker’s illegal power grab than actually voted for the Democratic candidate during the 2010 election.

Sic Transit Gloria One Day
That venom, that outrage is all just a memory now.  The Federal district court gave the public the sop they need to assuage their anger.  Public worker unions now have the right to nominal existence, albeit practically neutered by limits on its negotiating powers.  Wisconsin can now retire in dignity, having saved face, yet it has not really addressed the issue most offensive to right thinking people:  Scott Walker’s unrepentant disregard for democratic procedure.

Only a relative handful of the people signing the petitions are themselves union members, even fewer are members of public employee unions.  A statistically negligible portion are top-level union negotiators.  Apart from them, it seems, only the Righteous Before God feel any particular need to decisively defeat Evil.  And as Revelation 7 tells us, they total only 144,000 worldwide. 

Assuming an even geographic distribution proportionate to population density, that means roughly 0.000001 Righteous Voter in Wisconsin.  Not nearly enough to turn a Wisconsin election.  I highly doubt that Scott Walker loses much sleep over the hypothetical specter of a Righteous Voter upsetting the cart, not when he sees thousands of non-ideological voters deserting the recall effort daily.

Most pundits seem to feel that these defections were an unavoidable consequence of the Democratic Party’s stereotypical poor discipline, a confirmation that it is not so much an organized political faction as an ephemeral coalition of self-interested constituencies.

While I find that a plausible idea, it does seem curiously to make little of the notion that leaders are supposed to lead—that their failure to secure a stable following might be due to their lack of reliability and competence.  But then again, that proposition is at least 2,000 years old.  Perhaps that is why no one feels any particular need to call Tom Barrett out as a feckless whore.

Roman Precedent

In the five centuries of the Roman Republic, a sort of hierarchy of office eventually emerged whereby individuals in public service assumed ever greater responsibilities.  As they increased in age and experience, candidates were admitted to positions of more influence.  This succession of offices they termed the “Cursus Honorum”, that is, the “Honors Race”—the title of this article is a semi-satirical play on that term.
Over time Rome was called upon to intervene in the domestic affairs of neighboring city states, gradually and reluctantly at first, but then with increasing rapidity and eagerness.  The demands upon its leadership grew to such an extent that the pressures created a professional political class.

The Cursus Honorum now hardened into a definite, set progression of specific offices and requirements, whereas before it had merely been a pedagogical tradition for cultivating competent leadership, open to exception when need be to meet some immediate threat.  Few men could economically afford to devote themselves exclusively to public service.  Going forward, the top job, the consulship, would be open only to those of high aristocratic birth.  Outward, superficial qualifications became more important than deep intelligence or moral commitment.  The failed triumvir Mark Antony is literally the ultimate example of the Cursus’ shortcomings.

Mark Antony may have been a charming rogue, taken on his own terms: a drunken aristo given to hosting elaborate feasts and public spectacles.  Not a man you cross casually, but apparently willing to give and take within certain proscribed limits. Certainly diehard republicans in the Roman Senate saw him in this way.  There is good evidence that he was at least a passive participant in the plot to assassinate his controversial mentor, Julius Caesar.  This easy-going, pragmatic approach eventually sealed Antony’s doom and that of the Roman Republic.

Antony never had great respect for his younger rival, Gaius Octavius, and rarely made serious efforts to check the challenges Octavius offered him.  And why would he?  Antony himself had inherited command of Caesar’s most hardened troops and control of the financial resources of Egypt, the breadbasket of the Mediterranean.  Antony had already held the consulship, the pinnacle of the Cursus Honorum.  In the eyes of the world, he had achieved all these through unquestioned personal competence and success in the Cursus in the more-or-less traditional manner.

Gaius Octavius, on the other hand was little more than a grubby parvenu.  True, the patrician dictator Caesar had been his great uncle, but his paternal line was of very obscure equestrian origins.  During Antony’s first consulship he had not been of age even to assume the relatively junior position of quaestor.  And Octavius hardly distinguished himself by his conduct during the Battle of Philippi, where he is alleged to have hidden in the rear of his forces’ baggage train.  Not much of a challenge for Antony, in a direct mano-a-mano. 

But the ultimate showdown would NOT be a direct mano-a-mano.  Against all odds, this showdown was a comically desultory non-battle taking place in an obscure, strategically unimportant sea inlet in southern Greece:  Actium.  Antony was decisively defeated by what amounted to little more than a seaside dust up.

Modern military historians have a difficult time understanding just why Antony chose such an unpromising site for his final stand, but it seems obvious enough to political historians.  Seeing little danger in being overwhelmed by his inexperienced rival, Antony deemed it more important to maintain his dignity and make a show of the fact that he did not intend to attack Rome itself.  Therefore, he selected a battle site spectacularly unsuitable for launching such a campaign.  Antony was protecting the integrity of the Cursus Honorum.

Octavius’ stealthy contempt for convention and decorum secured him victory at Actium, and indeed served him well during his whole career.  Caesar raised Octavius above his native social station through a controversial posthumous adoption, and Octavius took full advantage, surrounding himself with a gang of ruthlessly competent conspirators who were bound to him by his newfound wealth and prestige, without regard to their pedigrees. 

One of these conspirators, Octavius’ best friend and future son-in-law, was Marcus Agrippa, perhaps the most spectacularly gifted general in Roman history, barring Caesar himself.  Although Octavius, now calling himself Augustus Caesar, was officially declared the victor of Actium in the celebrations that followed in Rome, it was clearly Agrippa who had been the true operational commander all along.

Wisconsin Decedent

How does any of this relate to Wisconsin’s 2012 recall election?  Quite simply, Wisconsin’s Democratic Party is showing a reverence for convention every bit as stupid and self-destructive as anything the doomed Mark Antony ever did at Actium.  They’re almost certain to nominate Tom Barrett, career politician from its largest in-state stronghold, Milwaukee. 

Anyone who knows Wisconsin knows that the mere mention of a Milwaukee mayor makes the vast majority of Wisconsinites cringe.  This state is overwhelmingly white, of northern European origins, and adherent to a vanilla Christian denomination like Lutheranism or Catholicism.  We are constitutionally conservative and bred for obedience to traditional authorities. 

In such a narrow world view, a Milwaukee mayor can only conjure up images of Mexican gangsters and big city greasebags--horrors to be resisted rather than novelties to be embraced.  Given any plausible excuse to abandon their awkward rebellion against a more familiar suburban greasebag like Scott Walker, we will.  We are not inclined to buck the system.

There is the supreme irony for you, because neither are Democratic activists.  They had the opportunity to nominate Peter Barca, the charismatic assemblyman from Kenosha, but that quickly received the kybosh.  Barca would have been a stunning candidate, maybe unbeatable in a general election. 

Barca could have commanded the loyalty of the unions in a way Barrett certainly won’t.  It was Barca who delivered the historic protest against Walker’s violation of the Open Meetings Law which inaugurated this whole sequence of events.  While Barca’s speech that night is immortalized for the ages on Youtube clips and newspaper accounts, Barrett might prefer to minimize his role in that little episode of Wisconsin history.  Barrett extracted piratical concessions from Milwaukee public service unions under the very Walker bill that he now pretends to disdain.

And who knows how many potential anti-Walker voters will fail to show up out of simple Barrett fatigue?  Barrett strung the media along for months, refusing to decisively commit to a gubernatorial candidacy until AFTER he’d taken the Milwaukee mayorship.  Will otherwise Democratic leaning Milwaukee voters be disgusted with this apparently premeditated and opportunistic turnaround?

There is another candidate running within striking distance of Barrett, former Dane County supervisor Kathleen Falk.  I plan to vote for her, though I do not think she will win.

Although Falk really doesn’t share Barrett’s substantive baggage, it’s still an open question whether she can overcome the perceived arrogance that clings to stereotypical images of Dane County / Madison people in the imagination of the average Wisconsinite.  As in all elections for at least the last 10 years, it is the non-ideological suburban and rural voter who will decide this race. 

Any objective review of Falk’s CV suggests that it is possible.  She is an accomplished woman.  The only problem being that politics are not objective.  Policy may be objective, but politics, never. 

It’s not a point of honor, but reality that Barca, a white male from outside of the Democratic charmed circles in Milwaukee or Madison, would have stood a much better chance of overcoming all of these obstacles and winning over flakey and unreliable “undecideds”.

That’s all water under the bridge now.  Barca announced, unequivocally that he had no intention of pursuing the nomination.  It’s an oddity that inevitably invites curious speculation but few satisfactory answers.  It’s understandable enough that the man may want to continue in his current position as assemblyman for Kenosha—he’s certainly demonstrated a particular zeal in that capacity.  I wouldn’t begrudge him or his constituents that.

Yet given the mediocrity of the leader of the pack, Barrett, I really have to wonder if that’s the whole story.  Barrett, like Barca, used to be a U.S. congressman.  The typical progression would have been to go on to the U.S. Senate—if one is willing to forego any theoretical presidential ambitions, given the historically poor performance of alumni as candidates.  Or, alternatively, if one is setting himself on a presidential track, a former congressman can run for governor of his state.  Which Barrett has actually done.  Twice already.  Failing both times.

Barca did neither of these things.  After working in public service and the private sector, he returned to the Wisconsin State Assembly and increased his involvement in local affairs.

My guess is that Barca received a polite “talking to”, by Wisconsin Democratic Party bigwigs, to discourage any notions union reps may have put into his head.  Like I said, Barca could have had tons of perfectly legitimate reasons to be reluctant, even before such a hypothetical “talk”, so it may not have taken much.  If Barca were sincere but perhaps more na├»ve man than I believe him to be, he may not even have been aware that this was a warning.

In any case, I’m sure that Barrett and the Democratic Machine are glad Barca didn’t run.  I’m sure that Scott Walker is, too.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tempus Omnia Vincit

"Time Conquers All", in Latin.  A pithy little meditation on the transience of this vale of tears, paradoxically immortalized by being phrased in a dead language.

El Hechizado
My pal Pete found it written on the bottom of a half empty beer can around closing time at the local beer garden, as we basked in Wisconsin's recent and unusually mild late March weather.  Or rather, I suggested he'd find it there. 

I told him it was the lucky password the bar's owner had written on the bottom of a randomly selected can as part of a free promotional giveaway contest.  Turns out in actuality there was only an expiration date written there.  And by the time he'd flipped the can over to read, it was completely emptied.  Mostly onto Pete himself.

I laughed, but the barkeep seemed a little annoyed, as some of the beer had spilled on other patrons who didn't quite get the joke.  We took that as our cue to skee-daddle and started off on our walk down the hill back to my shack to sleep off our hangovers.  It's a bit of a trek, and the pleasant mellow glow of the country moonlight put us in a contemplative mood, so we had a good chat on the way.  Some of it seemed pretty profound, worth sharing with a wider audience, so I decided to recount a bit of it here.

"What the fc*k was that "Tanta Alea Vexat"[1] sh*t about, then?" sez Pete.

"I don't know.  Sometimes I'm just a medium for these things.  A passive conduit for divine inspiration."

"What's the supposed to mean?  You just made an *ss of me in front of the only hot girl within 15 miles of this crappy little half-horse town.  I'm walking to a damn lice ridden shack, in beer sodden jeans, shack to sleep off a hangover--ALONE, I might add, if a bit gratuitously."

"Don't blame me.  It was the Goddess Errata[2] what done it.  You know how I channel her when I get foggy after a few drinks.  Besides, she only intended it as an encouragement for YOU, after you'd spent two hours bitching about the failure of your "Occupy Nya Upsala" project."  I was skating on thin ice here by bringing up such a sore point when Pete was already in a bad mood, but I felt I was onto something and decided to chance it.

Pete chuckled.  "Errata again?  Figures.  I dial Venus and Errata picks up, every time."

"You, my friend, don't know how lucky you are.  That I attribute to a combination of the psycho-motor slowing effects of the two gallons of beer you drank and your superhuman powers of concentration.  Some may call you a slow thinker, I call you a prodigy of Transcendental Meditation."

"Oh yeah?" he mused merrily.  "So the Goddess Errata's got a love jones for me on the basis of my James Brown-like "Soul Power"?  Fair enough.  I just want to know when she's going to incarnate as a Selma Hayek lookalike."

"Yuk it up all you like, laughing boy.  But you've only got yourself to blame.  You're the one constantly provoking her."

He stopped dead on the path, injecting an unwelcome note of earnestness into the conversation.  "How's that?"

"Well . . . well, like I said, you're always thinking so much.  Prizing apart every freakin' waking second with questions and doubts, trying to cobble together some jury-rigged philosophical edifice out of it.  That's more or less the equivalent of smearing your *ss with Braunschweiger in front of a starving rottweiler, when you consider Errata's ravenous appetite for chaos."

He stood there silently for a while.  I could here the gears slowly churning along in his beer sodden brain, but his eyes only betrayed a dull opacity that I found alarming. 

"Come ON, Pete!"  I grabbed him by the elbow and began frog-marching him on.  "You're doing it again--and if Errata catches up with you again, in this state, you're likely to have some kind of seizure or something again."

"Okay, okay!  Gotchya!  I can walk on my own.  I was just thinking."

"And THAT, my friend, is the entire problem.  It slows time down.  Leaving you susceptible to any number of corollary's of Littlewood's Law of Truly Large Numbers.[3]  You know that's Errata's favorite weapon."

"What!?  Littlewonk's what?"

"LittleWOOD, my friend.  LittleWOOD.  As in J.E. Littlewood--some egghead mathematics professor.  He's the guy who, ironically, formally codified Errata's sole theological doctrine; namely, that any ridiculous event, no matter how unlikely, is statistically certain to occur about once a month, bare minimum."

"Ha ha ha.  Sorry, Liam, but that plainly makes no sense.  A theologist carving the dogma of the Goddess of Anarchy onto stone tablets?  Clearly you're drunker than I am.  Nice try, though."

"No no no, man.  I'm being fer-real here, Pete.  I know it seems a little counter-intuitive, but it really makes sense when you really consider the thing in its totality."

I let that last bit soak in a bit, hoping the silence would impart a kind of solemnity to the pronouncement as I plotted the link.  Pete seemed receptive enough, silently cogitating at a clip agreeable to our pace through the gravelly path.  Then he bit.


"Well . . . Consider the following:

Given-For the purposes of this discussion, an exceptional event is defined as one occurring approximately once per every one million trials. . . ."

"Good enough."

"Also given-The average duffer spends about eight hours a day in actual conscious awareness.  Not just going through the motions, feeding the dog, letting the cat out, etc., etc. . . . "

"That seems a bit generous, don't you think, Liam?  Given a viable Republican contender who's advocating the revival of the office of Witchfinder General?"

"That may be, Pete, but it only goes to highlight how much worse off you are.  If that represents eight hours of thinking, you're probably doing at least fourteen."

"Okay.  And your point being . . . ?"

"My point being that you spend well over TWO MILLION (2,000,000) seconds per month in actual conscious awareness, as compared to just under one million for Joe Q. Normal.  Is it any wonder that over twice as much weird sh*t happens to you as a plasticine robot like Mitt Romney?  You're racking up miracles at the rate of about 2 per month."

"So . . . the mere fact of paying attention alters the objective physical reality of the universe?  In other words, regardless of the immediate short-terms success or failure of "Occupy Nya Upsala", my actions are actually and definitely succeeding in grinding the machine to a halt?"

This seemed to have struck a pleasing chord with my audience.  And I have to say, I myself was impressed by my own ability to recast Pete's inchoate idealism into a surprisingly plausible political theory, complete with an unassailable positivist underpinning.  The Goddess Errata does indeed have at least one dogma.

"Yeah, but don't get too full of yourself, Fauntleroy.  You're still basically a muck savage, Errata's boyfriend or not.  You could be doing a lot more to speed things along.  There have to be 60 something-or-others in a second you could drill down into. . . . And at least some of the credit has to go to conventional elites, who barely seem conscious at all.  They won't consider any idea unless it's been picked apart and over-invoked ad absurdam.  Kinda like the Hapsburgs, they're committing suicide by philosophical incest."

[1] "Such gambling disturbs"
[2]  A minor deity in the Discworld pantheon of Terry Pratchett, Errata is a being of no definite characteristics or particular agenda other than to insert chaos into the universe whenever it appears to be ticking along in an unsatisfyingly tidy manner.
[3]  Yah, for real.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Tree Falls In The Forest

To paraphrase the old Buddhist koan, "When Sabu shoots himself in the head, alone in the desert, will anyone care?"  What, for that matter, about the copper who turned him?

By now every one's read at an account of how an influential member of the hacktivest collective Lulzsec was co-opted by American "law enforcement" to incite his fellow members into incriminating behavior for which they may now spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars. 

Some of these stories have focused on local interest of individual participants in the drama.  Others have investigated the nature of hacker culture.  Still others on the legal problems presented by the apparently classic "entrapment" strategy used by the FBI.  But to date I have yet to see one discuss at any length the operation here of the deeper psycho/social dynamic that underlies the the self-concept of both Lulzsec and police forces.

This seems very odd to me, almost as if there were a deliberate conspiracy of stupidity to ignore the single most salient point of the whole affair.  Then again, my particular family history could be expected to make me preternaturally sensitive to issues of communal solidarity and order.

The Irish, like the Jews, as Brendan Behan says, have not so much an ethnicity as a neurosis.  And the seedbed of this neurosis lies in the centuries-old conflict for that island's self-determination.  While the vast majority of persons outside of the north and the Republic's border counties are quite glad to consider the apparently insoluble conundrum a relic of the past with no particular consequence to their daily lives, it still has a deep, deep resonance for their political culture, both formal and informal.  Whether they're willing to admit it or not, the long history of black operations, governmental and sectarian, has profoundly shaped their institutions and their unspoken rules.  There is an awareness that few controversial events are truly as they appear on the surface, and that the most troubling account of events may be the most factually accurate.

Northern people of all political stripes are intimately aware of this situation.  The engagement of most citizens of the Republic is probably as an embarrassed denial mixed with recognition.  Mainland British opinion may be all over the map, ranging from cultivated ignorance, violent jingoistic denial to a dramatic sort of "white guilt" that embarrasses both themselves and their Irish friends who'd really rather forget the whole thing and get on with their own lives.

But Americans of Irish descent, like myself, who came of age before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, usually see the thing with a type of cartoonish simplicity.  Assuming we have any interest in history at all, we typically get it wrong.  With the luxury of thousands of miles and hundreds of years between (most of) us and the conflict, we have adapted the complicated story of those tiny and densely interrelated islands into something resembling a racial opera of an endangered ethnic minority united in a timeless moral struggle against a decadent elite motivated by nothing more than a sadistic lust for raw power.  Pick your own side, but there's just enough reality there to make it an incredibly durable and useful lie.

Yes, around 2 million persons, or 25% of Ireland's population (overwhelmingly Catholics of native stock) died or emigrated as a result of the Great Famine.  And yes, the impact of the crop failures was exacerbated by the inaction of libertarian administrators like Sir Charles Trevelyan, who callously declared the event, " . . . a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence." 

But no reasonably complete reading of history can ignore the fact that over half of that empire's armed forces, and indeed the the staff of the Royal Irish Constabulary, were Roman Catholic.  Maybe that was a statistical necessity in the context of a desperately impoverished island overwhelmingly of the Catholic persuasion, but that does raise the question of just how many of the officers overseeing those heartless 19th century evictions were coreligionists of the dispossessed tenantry.

To my knowledge, my own family's history in law enforcement stretches back only into the 1950's, in America.  Yet I think there is a deep commonality of context in the police experience that needs to be considered if we're to learn anything from our history.  

True, the surface contours of the social and policing issues of 19th and early 20th century Ireland and 21st century America couldn't seem more different to the casual observer.  Even to this day, only the most far-out and marginal groups of never-credited theoreticians would have considered a viable "Black Nationalist" conflict to be a major contributing factor to policing policies that remain highly prejudicial, by any objective standard.  But alternate formulations making race a proxy for more destabilizing class conflicts do make a lot of sense.

An examination of the backgrounds and behaviors of both policing forces does tend to bear out striking similarities.  Overwhelmingly drawn from the lower-middling sort of the masses they're intended to check, the outlooks of these men must necessarily be conditioned by their marginal position in society, just barely above those they are conditioned by training and experience to view as "problems".  Better educated than many of the population they policed, 19th century Irish constables derived an enviably stable but small cash income in an incredibly precarious agricultural economy susceptible to recurring famine.  In today's America you will find very few millionaires in the ranks, far more NASCAR fans than owners. 

This tenuous position tends to weld officers into a tight-knit little society of their own, with tremendous pressure towards internal conformity and in-group solidarity.  In a very real sense these men form a "Thin Blue Line", but also a sort of "Bright Line"--intended to force consistent, predictable results from a world that is often anything but consistent or predictable.

The factions separated by this Bright Line are the civil elites and underlings.  The civil elites, curiously, are bodily removed from front line contact yet mentally preoccupied with the management of the holdings and institutions actually operated by their underlings.  While the social investment of the underlings is paradoxically smaller than that of the elites in an absolute sense (when measured in financial assets, at any rate), it is nonetheless total in a way the elite man's can never be.  The $10,000 loss that will become a salvageable tax write-off on the IRS return of the elite man will mark the total destitution of the underling.

The methods adopted by the Bright Liners to keep the unstable and unpredictable underlings on their side of the fence must necessarily be correspondingly elemental.  Whether the particular problem in question was a delinquent tenant farmer crowding out valuable pasture land for His Lordship's new flock of prize merinos, or is a hacker publishing Goldman Sachs memos outlining its strategy to bilk its own customers through deceptive investment advice, the very slender resource base of the police force's adversary tends to make debilitating them surprisingly easy--and brutal.

Details of the precise methods used to turn Sabu have not yet come to light.  I tend to doubt the government is anxious to discuss these details at any length during the defendants' prosecution, as most of the scenarios I can imagine leave them open to "entrapment" challenges. 

Many in the activist community may also be anxious to avoid this discussion in the fear that any apparent sympathy shown to Sabu may undermine the (presumed) deterrence effect of ostracizing him.  But I do think it is worth our consideration here, in order to draw out the broader implications of the betrayal and its historical context.
Street crimes like vandalism, burglary and theft provide ample scope for physical coercion--the "elevator ride" being a classic example.  But information offense charges, like those facing the Lulzsec members are accused require a different but no less primal approach.

All strategies begin by isolating the "perp", leaving him to stew in his juices for some uncomfortably protracted period of time and let his imagination run wild regarding the possible punishments he may face, and to wonder whether anyone will ever take notice or care.

That is the chief goal of the police interrogator--to convince the subject that not only does he have no control over the investigation's outcome, but that no one will care.  Ever.  In a paradoxical manner, the ostracization Sabu is likely currently undergoing furthers the police programme.

The subsequent course of interrogation may vary considerably, but always alternates between demonstrating the subject's total alienation from society and allowing him to catch a slender thread of hope that he may yet have One Option Left.  The specific tactics involved are many, and usually it is not difficult at all to come upon a suitable alternative.  Often the subject or his family or close associates willingly offer a gem up to the police, completely unbidden.

A relatively sophisticated subject may have anticipated police efforts to belittle him personally and may even have developed considerable resistance.  But very few of those so intensely identifying themselves with a pro-social agenda like that of Lulzsec will have the heart to apply the same brutal discipline to their family members.  And this is the inevitable Achilles Heel.  The police will manipulate the very sort of deeply empathic relationship that stoked their activism into convincing the subject that flipping is their One Viable Option to save at least one close personal relationship.

So maybe the police scared Sabu's wife, girlfriend or kids into begging him to cooperate.  Maybe all they had to do was dangle a hopeless natural-life prison term scenario in front of him.  Or maybe they had to dig deeper and convincingly edit some intercepted communications from his colleagues to demonstrate that it was a race against the clock to turn state's evidence.  One thing's for sure, though, by frightening him with the specter of eternal isolation as a social pariah and outcast, they effectively got him to do the job himself.

Just like the MI5 supergrass and black ops of the 1970's, however, the outcome of the FBI's Sabu/Lulzsec case will more than likely result neither in long-term cessation of hostilities nor the disbandment of the groups in question.  More likely it will involve the eventual mental breakdown and/or suicide of Sabu.

That is a fairly typical denouement for men who trade in treachery.  Just like Judas in the Bible or Richard Pigott after the revelation of the Jubilee Plot.  For men who once ostensibly dedicated themselves to the pro-social cause of liberty, the absolutely worst and most intolerable fate is to have your name associated with the betrayal of your comrades.  Beyond the serious but temporal consequences of prosecution and the interruption of the collective's operation, betrayal eternally forecloses from you the love, trust and confidence of your fellows.
That final chapter will probably be decades in the writing, punctuated no doubt with all manner of theatrically buffoonish distractions like tell-all book tours and radio programmes on corporate propaganda outlets like Fox News.  Such antics may temporarily blunt the pain, but can never totally block the realization of the absolutely existential scale of the treachery.

In that sense, I think the cops may be even worse off.  True, they enjoy the formal sanction of society's elites to perform the systematic betrayal of their fellow underlings.  They have an entire culture devoted to looking the other way in order to shield themselves from their crimes.  But that only delays paying the psychic bill, not extinguishing the debt.  Callous as any individual may be in and of himself, he still needs to interact with others on a regular basis. 

Just as Sabu was likely not able to effectively inoculate his family or friends from breaking under the pressure, the lone officer will eventually have to face the horrified disapproval of his own loved ones who become aware of the horrible, horrible things he's done.  So the half-life the policeman is forced to endure is under the continual action of a slow-acting poison of his own making.  It's no accident that police have rates of domestic violence, marital infidelity and substance abuse far in excess of the society at large.

If he is not able to retire first to an inadequate pension and alienated family, he will be subject to hypocritical prosecution by the very civilian elites for whom he committed his crimes.