Wednesday, August 30, 2006

700 Hobo Names

I'm now on my second time through the 700 Hobo Names. I always feel like the last person to get around to these things.

For the uninitiated, 700 Hobo Names is John Hodgman (the PC in those too-clever Mac commercials) reading a numbered list of 700 hobo names while Jonathan Coulton plays an acoustic guitar to ambient noise.

It's about an hour long.

Second time through.

Coincidences in the universe

So, the day after I post a musical version of a poem that I wrote several years ago, called "The Quiet", I see a trailer for The Quiet, alternately described as a "dank and rhythmless 'psychological' potboiler" and a "Lifetime movie on crack", where "what should have been heavily emotional material careens instead quite quickly into high camp" and Edie Falco "does an impressive nude scene!" The movie is called The Quiet because the main character is a deaf mute.

All that stuff I said the other day about my cross-promotional media empire? Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Sara Teasdale

Someone searched in here for a Charles Williams book. It turns out that five of his novels are in the public domain in Australia.

For very little reason at all, this reminded me that a poetry collection I read in high school is also in the public domain: Rivers to the Sea, by Sara Teasdale. I had forgotten how many little gems there are. Maybe they're a little hokey now, but I thought I'd share a few.


WHEN I go back to earth
And all my joyous body
Puts off the red and white
That once had been so proud,
If men should pass above
With false and feeble pity,
My dust will find a voice
To answer them aloud:

"Be still, I am content,
Take back your poor compassion,
Joy was a flame in me
Too steady to destroy;
Lithe as a bending reed
Loving the storm that sways her--
I found more joy in sorrow
Than you could find in joy."


IN Central Park the lovers sit,
   On every hilly path they stroll,
Each thinks his love is infinite,
   And crowns his soul.

But we are cynical and wise,
   We walk a careful foot apart,
You make a little joke that tries
   To hide your heart.

Give over, we have laughed enough;
   Oh dearest and most foolish friend,
Why do you wage a war with love
   To lose your battle in the end?

This last one takes a little explaining. I read this poem:


NIGHT is over the park, and a few brave stars
   Look on the lights that link it with chains of gold,
The lake bears up their reflection in broken bars
   That seem too heavy for tremulous water to hold.

We watch the swans that sleep in a shadowy place,
   And now and again one wakes and uplifts its head;
How still you are--your gaze is on my face--
   We watch the swans and never a word is said.

then wrote this one and sent it to the Alter Ego (Mt. Rainier's literary magazine), who picked it up for the last 1998 issue:

The Quiet

Whispering gowns
The gentleman drowns
Her pendant is limned in the dimmed evening light
Of a Saturday park and a long-ago dream
Swallowed up by the night at the seam

Shimmering stars
The city light mars
But cannot deny the untying of bonds
To the whole human race, the galactic undone
In the ponds of the night they are one

Similar answers
From long-ago dancers
Who walked by the by in the sky and the dark
Who stretched at the quiet and serene
Of a Saturday park all the world passed unseen

The relationship between the two poems is now obvious, but interesting, I think. Anyway, in the last month or so, I finally wrote a chorus that makes the whole thing even more like the original poem, and set the whole thing to music.

Come to the dark
Lay back your head
I will embrace you where no words are said
The shadow surrounds
But we will be free
When you come to the quiet with me

I'm probably a fool to do this, but here's a first draft of the song I made during my son's nap (next door to my office) with Audacity and my desktop microphone. All mistakes and funny microphone sounds are my own. I also set up a Myspace page for "Dan Lewis is a Band". Today is obviously an epic day in the history of the burgeoning cross-promotional media empire that is Dan Lewis. The road to riches and fame through blogging re-begins here!


Hi everyone. I've been gone for a week for my yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. I mean Seattle. Sarah, Alex, and I had a great trip with my relatives. We had some great days in the city and some good unwinding time. I was email incognito, blog independent, and poker free (except for the mini-tournament on Wednesday). I bought extra light acoustic guitar strings at Guitar Center and squid jerky at Uwajimaya, finally finished Stardust, and got beaten a lot at Settlers of Catan.

The one regret I have in all this is that I was unable to make it to the Friday showing of Snakes On A Plane with the Bad Movie Club. It was the last night before our flight home, scheduled to depart at 745 AM. I hemmed and hawed about going, but I finally decided it was too crammed to leave my wife to pack and worry about me driving home from the city at midnight. Plus, wasn't there a Simpsons-are-going-to episode (or maybe it was Marge's fear of flying) where the in-flight movie is about famous plane crashes?

Today is the first day of the second year of my graduate degree. I'm looking forward to the challenges. I hope I can get that thesis done.

I'll be back to regular blogging. As far as attendance goes, this semester I meet three days a week at 4:30 PM. I'll be busy for classes and projects, but I should be able to keep up. Just got to finish the last few library books. I am also thinking about writing a series on Anna Karenina as I reread it for the nth time.

Stay sane, and good luck for a productive school/work year to all.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


I really need to listen to more Radiohead.

This is a video of them live in 1995. I was laughing at the end of it, it was so cool. If you don't like songs that are awesome, you might not like it.

Where have they been all my life?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Recent stuff

We saw The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio and A Day Without a Mexican this weekend. They were both pretty good. Coincidentally, they both had intrusive narration breaking the fourth wall. Prize Winner is about a woman who supported her family in the 50s by entering ad copy contests, trying to hold it together despite her husband's budget-breaking alcoholism. The soundtrack has soloists from the best band, Nickel Creek. A Day Without a Mexican is about a mysterious fog that encases the state of California, preventing entry or exit, and makes all the Mexicans (and other Hispanics? the movie was not totally clear on this point) disappear in the middle of the night. With hilarious consequences.

I've been spending a lot of time at a site for writers: Evil Editor. The Evil Editor runs two contests, Guess the Plot and New Beginnings, by requesting actual queries and story openings from novelists. In the former, readers are invited to invent fake plots for the queries based only on the title. In the latter, readers are invited to read the first 150 words of the novel and write the next 75. Hilarity ensues, and so do some interesting critiques of the queries and openings that come over the transom.

I've been thinking about recording some of my songs onto the computer and putting them on Myspace, but just as I worked up the courage to do it, my sound card appears to have busted. Stupid Dell. Don't buy a Dell.

I found out there's a poker club at USU with fun prizes and no entry fees, so maybe I'll play more this year.

I got Cobra II from the library after returning some books. I guess it's the insider's look at the invasion and occupation of Iraq. I haven't even gotten to the text yet, just looked at the maps. There is a pretty funny one that says "Suspected Iraqi WMD sites". There are about 100 dots all over the country. I looked with interest to see the actual locations of cities around Baghdad that I hear so much about: Fallujah, Najaf, Tikrit. And there is a very interesting map showing where the major oil fields are. There are only two clusters. One is down south near the Kuwait border. The other is centered on the Kurdish city of Kirkuk. The same map also shows the Kurdish area, which starts in northern Iraq and extends into Iran and Turkey. This really showed me how volatile the political situation is in Iraq. The Kurds want a decentralized government and their hands on all that oil money, the Shiites want a strong government for the opposite reason, and the Sunnis are disaffected, and in the middle of a shooting war with the Shiites.

What a nightmare.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The long delay

Well, it's been a while. Our family made a few trips to the hospital this week. We are all exhausted, but ok or recovering. Feel free to email me for the details, but I won't be talking about it on the blog.

I finally finished The One Percent Doctrine. There is a lot of insight to take away from it. It picks up where The Price of Loyalty left off in one respect. The President continues to ignore the deliberative policy process in favor of gut feelings, with a tight circle around him and honest brokers treated as outsiders. But the shift from economic policy to foreign policy makes this book even more compelling than the first one.

Unlikely doomsday scenarios, one percent risks (Bruce Schneier has called them movie-plot threats) came to overwhelm our strategic thinking about terrorism and threats to our country, much as the possibility of liquid explosive detonations on aircraft is dominating the headlines this week. Because Cheney's one percent doctrine mandates that we consider threats not in terms of their likelihood, but that we consider threats as certainties and respond accordingly, analysts became inferior to operators as questions about why we should have a certain policy (such as the inevitable invasion of Iraq) yielded to questions about how we should implement the policy. In the war on terror, all our thinking is now tactical.

The President himself became tactical about our shadow war with al Qaeda. He got daily updates on CIA field work, about hunts for individual terrorists. He loved them; he wanted successes, results. You can see the attraction if you read the book. The story about the CIA setting up shop in an Arab bank is way cool. But I think the real reason he wanted these low-to-the-ground reports is that success stories are few and far between in this life-and-death game of Whack-a-Mole. If you lower your eyes to the 1 percent threats, pretty soon the ghosts start to crowd out the victories. One particularly grisly episode concerned a terrorist's head in a tin box. So you become hungry for victory.

And then, when we began to capture terrorists (or approximations to the term) and stuff them down our oubliettes, again the President wanted results. The FBI's proposed method, using unexpected acts of kindness and grants of privilege to prisoners, was seen as too slow for the new kind of war. One also suspects the process lacked a certain machismo. The CIA provided Plan B.

At one point, we captured a schizophrenic with multiple personalities. When we tortured him, he told us about all kinds of threats al Qaeda was making. Ghosts. But we believed him. Then there was Khalid Sheik Mohammed, an important figure in al Qaeda, who was ready to die, as in V for Vendetta. He wouldn't give anything up. Frustrated, the CIA captured his family and threatened to hurt his children. This is what Dostoyevsky was getting at when he said, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." Postscript: Khalid Sheik Mohammed still didn't break.

One ghost-hunting expedition in particular makes me cringe. The CIA had some people studying steganography, which I'm doing some research in right now. Steganography is the study of altering a cover medium, like a picture, or a movie, in a principled way to conceal the existence of a message. It's not exactly a code, like the Enigma machine in World War II or the encryption that keeps your credit card information secret when you send it over the internet to buy something on Amazon. Instead, steganography is how you make your secret messages look innocent, say by hiding them in an 800 by 600 graphic. Someone trying to read your secret messages then has two problems: first, knowing whether your messages even exist, and second, decoding your strongly encrypted messages, which look like nothing but random noise, once they're found.

And here's the thing: the state of the art of steganography for practical applications is undetectable, at least in the published literature. There is no analysis algorithm that can detect the use of steganography, used judiciously, with a low enough false-positive rate to effectively separate JPEG pictures with secret embedded data from JPEG pictures that are innocent. If you embed a low enough amount of data, say 1 KB in a 43 KB picture, no one will ever know it was there. 1 KB is 1000 characters, maybe 150 words. And that's just one picture. Then all you have to do is put the picture on the internet.

Remember in A Beautiful Mind, where mathematician Nash believes he can use his genius to discover hidden messages in random letters from popular magazines, and save the country from Soviet suitcase nukes? How it turns out to be the delusions of a lunatic? In late 2003, the CIA steganography team believed it was reading messages for an impending terrorist attack in the al Jazeera news ticker.

What CIA, using the technical services of a private company, served up to the President was astonishing in its specificity and its sweep. Some numbers indicated more than two dozen flights and flight times. Other hidden compressed numbers showed the coordinates for targeting--the unfortunate places where international flights, loaded with passengers, fuel, and, possibly, chemical or biological agents, would be bound once they entered U.S. airspace from less carefully controlled foreign airports. The targets ran from ocean to ocean, Los Angeles to New York. There were coordinates for the White House, the Space Needle in Seattle, and the tiny, rural Virginia town of Tappahannock.

We ended up grounding planes and issuing terror alerts because the CIA was using a dressed-up sciency version of The Bible Code.

Suskind concludes that chapter:

But the problem was much broader. It had to do with the wages of fear; a situation in which right-minded people, en masse, all deviate downward toward a state of panic.

"No one says, 'There's no proof!'" the CIA manager exhorted, his voice rising. "We've reached the point where no one is willing to not report something because they feel it's nuts. There is no threshold. Everything is reported, everywhere. There is no judgment in the system. No one is saying, 'Based on my experience, this person is a lying dog.' No one is saying, 'These reports are completely without any foundation.'"

But the most important point anyone can take away from The One Percent Doctrine is this: America is indefensible. The reason everyone assumes America will be attacked again (and was, by the anthrax scare, if you recall) is that defending America from any and all terrorist threats is impossible. Suskind writes about the mubtakkar, a chemical weapons delivery system as big as a bread box, that anyone could assemble with a trip to Home Depot. It is a box with two chambers which combine to form lethal gases when a fuse goes off. All a terrorist has to do to kill a hundred people at once is get into the country, then build one.

If you read in Schneier's movie-plot-threat contest thread, it will amaze you how simple some of these plots are. Ten two-man teams of terrorists sneak into the country, acquire sniper rifles, then terrorize the country for months. There's no reason it couldn't have happened, that it won't happen in the future.

If America is indeed indefensible, why have we spent so much effort and sacrificed so much civil liberty on fig-leaf defenses to keep the homeland secure? I now think the answer has more to do with domestic politics than credible threats. The One Percent Doctrine removes the veil of secrecy that surrounds our national defense, behind which you once had assumed that operations proceeded in good faith, and reveals the deception involved in this neverending war on terror.

These jokers no longer deserve any benefit of the doubt when it comes to terrorism. George W. Bush has hyped the terrorist threat out of proportion to its importance for our nation and our public life. He has played the demagogue, accusing the Democrats of being soft on terror and national defense. Here's the 2004 wolves ad in all its glory. Here's Cheney less than a week ago saying that the Connecticut Democrat Senator primary, where anti-Bush upstart Ned Lamont beat 18-year incumbent Joe Lieberman, was a victory for terrorists. The WMD handoff to terrorists, the presence of foreign fighters in Iraq, and the flypaper theory to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here were all used to justify the misbegotten invasion of Iraq the secular dictatorship. And now if we exit vicious religious civil war, stage left, we will give a victory to terror.

I was on the phone with my dad recently. He and my mom returned from France (and the vacation of a lifetime, it sounds like) just after the UK terror plot story broke. Leaving Paris was fine for them, Amsterdam was a bit more trouble. Mom had a bottle of anise extract and Dad had bottles of wine; I think they ended up putting it in their checked baggage. My sister comes back from Croatia via Heathrow though. Dad was explaining how they are dumping out liquids and checking every prescription bottle as people go through the checkpoint. I had just read this, so I was less than charitable about the paranoia of it all. Sorry, Dad.

Stop being afraid. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. And I'm not just telling you, Constant Reader, I'm telling the people who are holding our democracy hostage for the sake of trying to stop a lightning bolt. The terrorists beat you. They induced terror in you. And you are so afraid of dying that you are willing to sacrifice the things that are more important than life and death, the things that our soldiers die for.

Now it's your turn to brave. And the first brave thing you can do is start demanding some answers. Demand them from the people who have been terrorizing you.

And I'm not talking about the terrorists.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Remember, remember the fifth of November

You know those shivers you get up your spine when something is scary? Or awful? I am having them right now. I feel like my body is blushing. It's because I'm remembering V for Vendetta, and how good it was.

Here's a good spoiler-free review by James Wolcott of Vanity Fair. I've wanted to see the movie badly ever since he wrote this, and boy, was he right on the money. The movie is so well made, and so rewatchable. I actually want to see it again right now, but we rented it for a dollar at the Redbox and it has to go back today, and I have to work. I told Sarah we have to buy it. I want to be spoiler-free too, so that review is the closest I will come to summarizing the action. I went into it fresh! like Frank Costanza. And I was glad to be fresh, in hindsight.

The guys who wrote the screenplay, the Wachowski brothers, are the same guys who did The Matrix. V for Vendetta is magnificent like the original, instead of goofy like the sequels.

(Tell the truth, I haven't seen the third Matrix movie yet, like the Star Wars prequels. I held out for a long time before watching Episode III because Episode II was so very bad. Recall that episode in the Holy Grail where the Prince of Swamp Castle just wants... to... SING... and then the father comes into the shot and says "Stop that! You're not going into a song while I'm 'ere!" Anyway, there is this scene in Episode II when Anakin and Padme are about to kiss and the music swells up, melodramatically, and then... they don't kiss. And the music cuts off immediately, just like in Holy Grail. I was rolling. Not Natalie Portman's finest hour. However, she gives a really solid performance in this movie, very believable.)

This movie got panned by some critics, like David Denby of the New Yorker, for its politics. In this case, I think they got what they brought, and saw what they wanted to see. The parallels between the totalitarian government in the film and America's secret prisons struck a nerve with those folks.

I also think they boinked on the film's central contradiction: terrorism restores democracy in the film's dystopian England. You could argue about whether V, the terrorist in a Guy Fawkes mask, is a terrorist or a revolutionary, an insurgent, a freedom-fighter. In fact, we've all had that conversation before, in a slightly different setting.

I also find it funny that the neocons advocated a violent invasion and occupation to promote the flowering of democracy, but recoil from the same violence when it is a Western government, however fictional and oppressive, that is destroyed. Once again, the global war on terror is not about the high moral ground. Instead, it's about "when smart bombs fall, better thee than me" rationalizations about the existential threat posed by people who read the Qur'an.

But the real threat to the neocon agenda is not from without; it's from within, when people in America stand up for democracy and reject the easy Manichaeism of cowboy diplomacy, of Christian versus Muslim, of the fear of faceless enemies, and of the sacrifice of essential liberty for temporary security. God knows I hope they do stand up this November, and use the ballot box as the weapon of destruction. After all, who wouldn't want to destroy this?

While the select few on the House or Senate Intelligence oversight committees could review this raging river of classified information, the most sensitive materials were shown only to the two ranking members -- one from each party -- on each committee. Yet there was much that even they did not see.

In short, 9/11 allowed for preparation to meet opportunity. The result: potent, wartime authority was granted to those guiding the ship of state. A final, customary check in wartime -- demonstrable evidence of troop movements or casualties, of divisions on the move, with correspondents filing dispatches -- was also missing once the Afghanistan engagement ended. In the wide, diffuse "war on terror," so much of it occurring in the shadows -- with no transparency and only perfunctory oversight -- the administration could say anything it wanted to say. That was a blazing insight of this period. The administration could create whatever reality was convenient.

Messages, of all kinds, could finally stand unfettered and unchallenged -- a kind of triumph, a wish fulfillment, that could easily overwhlem principles of informed consent and accountability.

Accountability, in fact, was shrunk to a single standard: prevent attacks on the U.S. mainland. As long as there were no such attacks, little else mattered.

-- Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine

Thursday, August 03, 2006

V for Vendetta

I finally saw V for Vendetta.

I'm feeling pretty raw right now.

Read The One Percent Doctrine.

Then watch V for Vendetta.

Quick notes

I've been busy with my research job. Our steganography algorithm is now at least a little better than the best thing we've found. I am starting to feel a little responsible; after all, if this kind of technique is successful, the NSA won't know we're sending encrypted messages in our JPEGs anymore. And God knows, with the war on terror and all, the government needs to be reading my private email.

I can safely recommend The One Percent Doctrine from the first 100 pages alone. The attitudes our government took toward our rights and privacy, justified as necessary to prevent another 9/11, are appalling. Reminds me of that guy in one of the Kerry-Bush debates, who asked President Bush about the PATRIOT Act:

"With expansions to the Patriot and Patriot Act II, my question to you is, why are my rights being watered down and my citizens' around me? And what are the specific justifications for these reforms?"

President Bush responded: "I appreciate that. I really don't think your rights are being watered down. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't support it if I thought that. Every action being taken against terrorists requires court order, requires scrutiny."

When you read The One Percent Doctrine, you will find out what a bald-faced lie that was. Our President has lied over and over again about just these kinds of accountability issues. Why is he still in office?

I got to play some poker with my brother-in-law Brian this weekend. We had a good time. Next time a tournament rolls around at USU, I think I'll enter, just for fun.