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Hot Heads

September 25th, 2001

Given recent discussions about strong crypto in the wake of the WTC/Pentagon attacks, I want to reprise my September 10 comments about the SSSCA. For reasons that should be obvious, those comments were not posted on this page for very long. But I believe they are important. You can read them over here. I was going to reproduce some highlights, but I think the whole thing is worth reading.

For many years I have been struggling with the following dillema: how to talk about history without appearing lefty. Whenever I bring up historical details in political debates, I am accused of being “liberal.” Now, I self identify as a progressive, and I consider being labeled either a Democrat or a Republican equally insulting, and liberal is an offensive, stinky word. However, talking about history doesn’t necessarily require a leftist stance. Henry Kissinger is a notable example of a right-wing wacko who makes historically informed policy arguments. I’ve tried for a long time to find a way to make historically based arguements in non-political terms — this was especially important when I was teaching classes with titles like “Political Sociology” and “Social Problems” but is still important when I try to make logical statements in non-political terms. I’ve come to the conclusion that in an anti-intellectual culture such as ours, it is relatively easy for the right to make a short-hand connection between history and “liberal” that somehow has stuck (I don’t pretend to have my finger on the mechanism of how this happened). All of this has recently become an issue as “the left” is being criticized for making statements about the September 11 attack that appear to be blaming the US for those attacks. David Clark has written an op-ed piece for The Guardian on just his issue:

…it is absurd to claim, as some commentators have, that any attempt to set these events in a wider political context is tantamount to saying America “had it coming”. A mature debate will depend on our ability to separate issues of cause and effect from questions of moral responsibility. Historians have correctly identified the punitive terms of the treaty of Versailles as a factor in the rise of Hitler. That does not turn them into Holocaust deniers. We will need to understand and address the deep-rooted alienation from which terrorists derive legitimacy and support in order to deny them their life-stream: tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism, if you like.

The U.S. needs to take a hard look at the causes of the virulent hatred with which many in the Muslim world view us, and we need to ask hard questions about the role our own foreign policies have played in that hatred. Reasonable people are then free to decide that the benefits of our policies are so great that the hatred is worth it (a position I personally disagree with) — but making that decision in the absence of information is not only stupid, it is foolhardy.


September 24th, 2001

Jessamyn expressed it better than I can: I am sad about the attack on the World Trade Center & Pentagon. In fact, I think I may be depressed, at least temporarily. But I want to move on and write about other things. I cannot allow the horror of the attack to dominate my thoughts. I’ve been making a conscious effort to avoid news about the victims and their families, and I’ve been trying hard to avoid looking at pictures of the WTC blowing up. While I am still following the political aspects of the story, I’m trying to protect my psyche a bit.

The elloquence of Wil Wheaton continues to impress me. I’m glad his weblog is there.

Researchers have found a link between increased consumption of milk and decreased incidence of pre-menopausal breast cancer. I already have a whole mess of risk factors for breast cancer, and now my lactose intolerance is increasing that risk even more. Not what I needed to hear this morning.

If term limits are a good idea, then they are a good idea in all instances. If they are a bad idea, then they are a bad idea in all instances. I don’t think it is asking too much to call for some consistency here. So while I applaud Giuliani’s leadership during the crisis in New York, I am apalled by his reported efforts to start a campaign to repeal term limits and consequently allow him to run for mayor of NYC again. Why is it that politicians only call for the repeal of term limits when those limits effect them? (rhetorical question–I’m really not that stupid).For the record, I personally think term limits are a bad idea. Sometimes it is good to have the same person in office for a long time. I hate to think what would have happened in WWII if FDR had had to leave office. And, I think Giuliani’s efforts in the face of tragedy probably warrant keeping him around for a while. But don’t just repeal term limits when they are inconvenient; repeal them because they are a mis-guided solution to the problem of incumbency. Campaign finance reform could solve the same problem more efficiently and more honestly.

Where were you born? According to this page, the first three numbers of your social security number indicate the state in which you were born. I entered my numbers, and the result was wrong. I suspect it indicates the state in which the social security card was issued, which in my case is different from the state in which I was born. This probably works better for people younger than I. When I was born, parents could claim a deduction for a child without supplying the child’s SSN. Now I believe they have to have that number, meaning they have to get SSN’s for their kids. I can still remember getting my card — I had no idea what it was for or what I would do with it, but I signed it anyway and it made me feel very grown-up. I dotted the i’s in my name with little circles and everything. I guess I should be glad they aren’t hearts (link via Cluttered).

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September 19th, 2001

I’ve been reading lately about movies that are being edited, re-edited, rescheduled and rewritten to remove references to the World Trade Center in order to avoid retraumatizing viewers. Included in these revisions are People I Know with Al Pacino that includes a shot looking up the towers; Sidewalks of New York which is obviously set in New York City; Men in Black 2, which ends at the World Trade Center; Collateral Damage and Big Trouble which both feature explosions and domestic terrorism; and Spiderman, the trailer of which prominantly featured the World Trade Center (all links are to Mr. Showbiz, except the Spiderman link which is to the Sony Pictures site for the movie).

I’m not sure how I feel about this kind of editing. I was watching a show on Sunday on The History Channel called The Most. I can’t quite figure out the logic behind this series — every episode is sort of a hodge podge of things that are the “most” famous, infamous, extreme, etc. example in their category. Sunday was the first time I’d seen this series. This particular episode included a segment on “Venues” and briefly profiled the Sydny Opera House as the “most recognizable theater” in the world. Just as the segment began, a picture of the Eifel Tower was shown, followed by the World Trade Centers, as the voice over said something like “some buildings come to define their cities and represent their spirit.”

I was shocked by the pictures, and for a moment had trouble breathing. But I liked seeing those buildings the way they used to be. It gave me a moment of peace. I suspect that in the coming months and years I will treasure such pictures as reminders of before. No one yet knows what will come after, and I personally feel quite fearful of what after might look like. However, no matter if after is good, bad or neutral, pictures of the twin towers will be a dramatic marker of what came before. In that small moment when the towers were dominating my living room, I found comfort. Before more editors turn their attention to older films and television shows that feature the World Trade Center (a shot often used to establish that the film takes place in New York City), I hope they pause for a moment to consider that some of us might treasure reminders of before.


September 18th, 2001

I’m burrying myself in work in an attempt to get back to normal.

This could be a significant breakthrough in addiction studies: Cigarettes may function like anti-depressant drugs.

The investigators found that the brains of long-term smokers had neurochemical abnormalities similar to the brains of animals treated with antidepressant drugs….Specifically, Ordway said, the brains of long-time smokers had significantly fewer alpha-2 adrenoceptors and significantly less of the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase, which helps to manufacture the brain chemicals noradrenaline and dopamine.These two effects have been reported in animals exposed to antidepressant drugs and are also two of the markers used to identify potential antidepressant medications, Ordway noted. “This is the first time someone demonstrated that chronic smoking produced biological effects in the brain that (are associated with) antidepressive effects in the brain,” he said. [from Reuters via Yahoo]

This finding may explain why smokers who suffer from depression find it more difficult to quit smoking than non-depressed smokers. It is way to early to call this finding certain, but if it holds, it may open the door to new quit treatments and help a lot of current smokers who would like to quit but somehow just can’t.

Given all the research about the effect cigarette smoking has on the brain, I worry a lot about the effect that it has on teenage brains. Their brains are awash in hormones that are changing some basic brain functions; how does nicotine play into that? I’m not a medical researcher, but from what I’ve seen, the evidence is good that nicotine has a significant impact on developing teenage brains. The problem is that we’re just not sure exactly what that impact is. It can’t be good.

The Detroit Free Press reports that tobacco companies are still addicted to teenage smokers. In spite of an agreement to avoid advertising tobacco products in magazines with large teenage smokers, three companies — R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard — are still advertising in magazines like People, Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated. The bastards.

Embarrassed Beyond Words

September 14th, 2001

Two links, both of which sicken me because they are about individuals who are trying to profit from Tuesday’s tragedy.Falwell blames gays, liberal groups for terrorist attacks. I can’t believe that pitiful excuse for a Christian leader thinks those attacks are MY FAULT!!! Maybe I shouldn’t take it so personally, but really. He is blaming me. I’m progressive enough that I consider “liberal” an insult. I’m deeply feminist. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but I cannot believe that Falwell is twisting this crisis to feed his own sick agenda.Scam artists capitalize on tragedy. Apparently, some spammers are sending out e-mail requesting donations for the victims of this crisis and providing a link where people can enter their credit card numbers to contribute. The only catch is, the link is a private site that steals the credit card numbers and other personal information. Sick, sick, sick. I realize that most readers of this site are probably savvy enough to avoid falling into this trap. But not everyone is, and I’m horrified at the notion that some spammers are using this tragedy to steal people’s money.

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Hanging On

September 13th, 2001

Just one link:In February 1999, The Nation published an article about The Cost of an Afgahn victory over the Soviet Union. The article provides a lot of background information on Osama bin Laden and some compelling accounts of US involvement his early training.

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September 12th, 2001

If you are looking for more coverage of yesterday’s events, The Washington Post has the most comprehensive and informative news I have seen. Highlights:America Shuts Down on its Darkest Day.

A country whose biggest political problem had seemingly been a dwindling budget surplus suddenly found itself at war with a ruthless, invisible enemy. There were rumors of hijacked planes still in the air. The TV images were horrifying, and they wouldn’t stop. Plotters Found Flaw in Nation’s Defense Plans.

Political and media attention has tended to focus on the acquisition by terrorists of weapons of mass destruction, such as a crude nuclear bomb or a biological weapon. This came on top of a focus on conventional terrorist attacks, such as car bombs and airplane hijackings. “We focused on the low end — the car bomb and the truck bomb — and the more exotic high-end threats like [biological warfare], but we neglected the middle,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert for Rand Corp., a Washington think tank. Bush Faces Biggest Challenge.

The nightmare scenario of the post-Cold War era — terrorism at home aimed at innocent civilians — hit with a terrible swiftness and frightening power that even the experts had not imagined, and it is clear that Sept. 11 has become the defining day of Bush’s presidency.All the Post’s coverage is excellent.

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September 11th, 2001

Breaching the Web will be silent today.I have no coherent words right now to express my thoughts and feelings about terrorism on the East Coast.

Steve at Now This is providing excellent coverage and commentary.

Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.

–Albert Einstein


September 10th, 2001

I want to comment on the Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (link via Genehack). This is a very scary idea that would embed security protocols in new hardware and hand authorship rights over to the entertainment industry. While I do not fully understand the technical aspects of this issue, to my mind the biggest problem with the act is the philosophic problems it raises.

Under SSCA it would be a civil offense to create any computer equipment that “does not include and utilize certified security technologies” approved by the federal government. It does not target intellectual theft — instead it targets the technology that makes such theft (among other things) possible. This would be like castrating all males simply because some males commit rape.

History shows that targeting the equipment of crime is not an effective deterrent to those who are criminally inclined. During prohibition, to choose a completely random example, Prohibition agents destroyed stills, impounded hop fields, seized brewing equipment and cut down forests of American oak in an attempt to eliminate the tools of alcohol manufacture. They did this because it was legal to drink alcoholic beverages, but it was illegal to make them or sell them. The goal of prohibition was to eliminate drinking; however, drinking was considered an unassailable right and outlawing it directly would have been an affront to individual privacy. So the drys went around privacy rights and targeted the equipment of alcohol manufacture. It didn’t work. People simply created smaller, more portable stills, made (sweeter) beer without hops, found better hiding places for their brewing equipment and used maple to age their whiskey.

This is a parallel case. The entertainment industry cannot go after its real targets which are the first amendment and copyright protection. Those targets are relatively safe, at least until George W. gets his chance to appoint a Supreme Court judge. Instead, the industry is targeting one form of technology through which those rights are expressed. This is simply one more in a long string of attempts to centralize expression, information and opinion in the hands of those who can make a profit from them.

Don’t believe me? Go read Ben Bagdikian and Karl Marx’s The 18th Brumaire. Then we’ll talk.

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Western Electric

September 6th, 2001

Tribute to the Telephone includes a concise history of the phone, a memorial to the bell system, and some great pictures of old telephone ads. I found the Pay Phone History Timeline to be particularly moving in light of the competition pay phones face from cell phones and other handheld technologies. Apparently, the very first pay phone, built in 1889 was a “post-pay” phone in which you inserted coins after your call was finished.

I wish there were more honor systems in contemporary society. Sometimes I feel like my whole life is determined by deadlines, consequences and threats. I wish there were more instances where vendors trusted me to pay after receiving goods or services. Imagine the benefit of living in a society in which all were assumed to be honest. Sure, some people would take advantage of the system, but our world view would be entirely different, and our way of interacting would be less guarded and more humane.

Note to self: e-mail members of dissertation committee. ask if they will sign all my paper work and award Ph.D. now. promise to finish dissertation later. see what happens.

Readers over a certain age will understand when I write the following: remember the smell of a fresh mimeograph? remember the thrill of being chosen to crank the handle on the “ditto” machine? remember the exact shade of the blue smudges left on your hands after passing the pages to the kid next to you? (other readers should probably read this description of mimeograph machines before going further). I was reading several books about the 1932 election of FDR the other night (why? see above note about my dissertation), and I read that two busses accompanied FDR on the campaign trail. One bus carried reporters, while the other carried stenographers, writers, typists and mimeograph machines. I was later reading several other books about the 1928 presidential campaign of Al Smith (cf. dissertation), when I read that Smith also traveled with a mimeograph machine.

All this made me wonder about the origins of the mimeograph. It turns out that it is far older than I realized. It was invented by Thomas Edison. The mimeograph is a cheap, efficient way of duplicating single sheets of paper that works by pressing ink through a stencil. It is expensive, but not out of the reach of someone who really wants to distribute their ideas (and yes, they are still made today). Before the internet was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, the mimeograph made possible the distribution of fanzines, self-published ruminations, semi-religious ideas, radical notions, and newsletters on a wider scale than had been possible before. It was also used in schools to duplicate tests, quizzes and other forms of torture.Mimeographs are still used today in schools and churches in the US that can’t afford to update their equipment and in countries that can’t afford expensive computers and printers. They are reliable and don’t wear out. As long as stencils and ink remain available, the machine will continue duplicating indefinately. I’ve always thought of the mimograph machine as archaic, as something to laugh and reminisce about. I’ve never before considered it as an object to admire.