Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Destruction of Humanity Greatest Hits

I saw The Day After on the Sci-Fi channel over Thanksgiving weekend. For those of you too young to remember 1983, The Day After was a TV movie famous for its graphic (by the standards of the time) depiction of a full-scale nuclear war. I watched the first hour of it last weekend not because I cared about the movie itself, but because I wanted to watch the part where the missiles land in Kansas, fake-looking mushroom clouds cover the horizon and cutting-edge special effects technology from 1983 shows how a nuclear bomb turns people into X-rays before they disintegrate into individual atoms.

I read once that the movie was significant because, of all the TV depictions of nuclear war, this was the first to show people at ground zero instead of focusing on distant mushroom clouds, and wide-eyed guys in military command centers telling their superior officers “Sir, the missiles have destroyed Washington.” No, The Day After showed people either bursting into flame or vaporizing before they could. However, you first have to sit through an hour of character development. And I did, only to discover that Sci-Fi cut out all the X-ray parts. You don't see any living things directly killed by the nukes.

Which makes most of the beginning of the movie pointless, of course: the rationale behind showing us the farmer, his wife and their young children was to make us feel bad when they turn into X-rays.

But Sci-Fi cut out all the horrifying bits except the part where Steve Guttenberg survives. What a cheat! Luckily, I found the unedited clip on YouTube. Too bad I didn’t think to look there before I wasted an hour on the movie.

So here’s a business idea: since most disaster movies make you sit through several hours of bad plot just to reach a minute or two (at best) of world-shattering special effects, why not put out a greatest-hits DVD showing nothing but disaster porn money shots? With none of the boring disaster foreplay and disaster dirty talk. Comets and asteroids crashing into the earth, the Yellowstone supervolcano obliterating the western United States, mega-tsunamis crashing against all shores of the world ocean . . . I’m telling you, this would sell.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Doing My Stupid Civic Duty (kicks pebble)

So how was your Thanksgiving? Mine went swimmingly until Saturday night, when I discovered a jury duty summons waiting for me in the mail. It’s for state superior court in a grubby city a few miles east from me.

A summons. That puts a definite damper on holiday spirit, but the timing could be worse; the one I got for federal duty two years ago arrived on Christmas Eve. I suppose I could wax poetic about how jury obligations are the heroic privileges of the free citizenry of a republic, only I’m too busy dreading the security checkpoint outside the courthouse. They’re going to ask to search my purse, of course, and I can’t say “If you think I’m dangerous you shouldn’t have made me come here in the first place” or else I'll be arrested.

They’ll probably confiscate the nail clippers on my keychain. Should I remove them, or use a permanent marker to write “weapon” on the back? That sounds like a dangerous thing to do nowadays, but I'll have plausible deniability: If any security guards give me hell I can adopt a look of wide-eyed innocence and say “oops, I forgot I had those!” I have enough other crap on my keyring to make that utterly believable.

But what can I accomplish by throwing away a perfectly good set of nail clippers on a completely futile gesture? Nothing. Besides, I should make the court people think I'm nice and respectable, so they'll be more likely to believe me when I tell them I can’t do jury duty.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Pandemic Planning

You know that bird-flu virus which might mutate into a deadly pandemic that kills tens of millions of people in America but might also turn out to be nothing? Sometimes you’ll see articles comparing bird flu to the great flu epidemic of 1918, which killed huge numbers of young, strong, otherwise healthy people.

Weird, that — most flu viruses focus on the old and the weak, in true Darwinian fashion. But the 1918 flu tricked your immune system into attacking your own body. Maybe bird flu will too. That’s why I’m happy to remember that the last time I had a cold the damn thing lingered for three weeks. Clearly my immune system is no threat to anybody, and as an additional precaution my dislike of allegedly good-for-you foods like spinach and lettuce means I’ll never catch e. coli from a vegetable crisper.

Since I’m supposed to get in the Thanksgiving spirit, I’ll mention how thankful I am to know that bad health habits came full circle and landed on the side of the angels this year. May your own vices prove equally profitable.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Expendability Reminders On Vacation

Just over the Vermont state line (first exit off the Interstate) is one of those welcome centers where you can find pamphlets and coupons for various opportunities to add your money to the local economy. My significant other and I always stop at that center whenever we drive through Massachusetts to Vermont, and I always suffer a momentary twinge of low-grade irritation when we leave the welcome center and I see the following sign on the ramp leading back to the highway:

place children in rear seat

You do know why placing children in the rear seat is important, don't you? Every time I see that sign I want to jump out of the car and post another of my own:


This would probably be a felony, though, so it’s damned lucky I never have any such sign on hand whenever I go to Vermont.

Did I mention that I’m back from my vacation? Yes, it was very relaxing and I’m feeling quite the princess of mellowness, these days. By the way, I just remembered that I need to take my car to a mechanic to have the driver’s-side airbag removed because I’m only five-foot-three, which means I have to sit so close to the steering wheel that if the bag inflated it would instantly kill me.

It's not the car manufacturers' fault, though; the government requires them to booby-trap cars so that they kill short drivers in the event of a collision. It's a safety rule whose touted benefits irritate me every time I go to Vermont; airbags save lives but you'd better keep your children in the back seat.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Bugging Out to Where the Hippies Are

Since I have the week off from work my significant other and I plan to spend the next few days in Vermont, best known for being the state where you can tour the Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream factory and have free samples served to you by Oompa-Loompas. Vermont is in New England, an area which weather forecasters say will be covered in rain all week. So this will be a very damp and gray sort of vacation but I don’t care, so long as I can replenish my dwindling stockpiles of maple sugar and smoked cheddar. See you in a few days.

But it’s for the Common Good!

When the Nazis controlled Germany and much of Europe, one of their many criminal acts was to confiscate works of art from wealthy Jews. Some of this art went into the private collections of Nazi officials, while others went into German museums.

Now it’s sixty years later, and the museums in question say it’s immoral for the descendants of those Jews to demand the return of their grandparents’ art:

Jewish heirs have laid claim to many valuable pieces of art currently hanging in German museums. Those charged with reaching a decision over the artworks -- whether they are museum directors or local politicians -- face a dilemma. On the one hand, there are the claims of the descendants of persecuted or murdered German Jews, who want works returned that were once taken from their ancestors under duress. On the other hand, it is in the public interest to ensure that important pieces of art remain in the country. Museum directors accuse some of those involved of being more concerned about the millions at stake than moral issues -- business-minded lawyers eager to satisfy an art market hungry for new material.

The word “millions” refers to the vast monetary value of the paintings under debate. The article actually opens with a scene at a New York auction house, where hundreds of millions of dollars change hands between super-rich art collectors and — whoever currently owns the art. Museums? Private collectors? It doesn’t say. But the point the museums are making in this paragraph is that the Jews who want grandpa’s paintings back only want them because they’re worth so much money; presumably the museums wouldn’t care if the Jews wanted merely to hang the paintings in their living rooms.

The article goes on to discuss some borderline cases where the heirs’ claims to the artworks are more dubious. The issue isn’t always black and white. But I keep stumbling over the paragraph saying that keeping loot which Nazis stole from Jews might be in the public interest.

A Palindrome

The basement of my apartment building is a dark and windowless place with a single bare lightbulb dangling from a spidery attachment in the middle of the ceiling. As you walk further into the basement you find the switches of other lights (enough to illuminate the room pretty well, actually), but that bare bulb on its own seems to emit more shadows than light.

It's been years since I last felt afraid of the dark, but the half-dark of the basement in the light of that single bulb can still make my spine shiver. Of course I keep the bulb on anyway, since a creepy basement where I can sort-of see is better than a non-creepy one where I'm blind. But the thought of a darkness that's preferable to light inspired me to think of a behavioral palindrome:

The room was very dark, which made
the child cry in terror
The mother lit a candle, which
turned out to be an error.

The tiny flame cast shadows like
the shreds of scary dreams
so that the child couldn't stop
her shrill and piercing screams.

The shadows terrified her more
than darkness ever did —
that’s why her mom blew out the light
and in the dark they hid.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Authoritarian Position on Abortion

Here’s a question I saw posted on a comment board somewhere else: is opposition to abortion inherently authoritarian? And here’s my answer: opposing abortion is not authoritarian, but wanting to outlaw it is.

Before anyone gets offended by this, think about the war on drugs. You don’t report your dealer to the cops. Your dealer doesn’t report you. And there’s no victim reporting the crime to the police. So how do the cops learn about it?

Through sneaky, nasty authoritarian ways. Spying. Phone-tapping. Government-funded propaganda campaigns urging young citizens to rat each other out. Even people who have never touched drugs are affected by a law that can only be enforced by requiring the cops to invade people's privacy, and fosters an "us vs. them" mentality between the cops and the folks they supposedly protect and serve.

Now apply the same problems to illegal abortion. A woman who has one won’t report herself to the cops. Whoever performs the abortion won’t report it either. If first-trimester abortions are made illegal, what methods will police use to make sure the law’s enforced?

Before you answer, consider that we already live in a country where harmless cold medicines are banned because they might be used to make methamphetamine. Students who take aspirin are expelled from school because they might be taking happy pills instead. Police roadblocks checking every driver on a given street are acceptable because someone might be driving drunk.

We now live in a country where the government and police think it’s perfectly acceptable to place restrictions on the lives of the innocent because some of them might be guilty. And with that in mind, I ask those who’d like to see abortion made illegal: how, exactly, do you suppose the police would enforce this ban?

In Ceaucescu’s Romania, the government made damn sure nobody had an abortion by requiring women of childbearing age to have gynecological exams each month. I don’t know how harshly the police investigated pregnant women who miscarried, though.

Fighting Fire with Fire

It may be possible to treat or even cure AIDS by turning the virus against itself:

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a genetically-engineered strain of the AIDS virus that combats other, more deadly strains.

The new anti-AIDS strain, which was developed through a genetic manipulation technique called antisense, was examined in a three-year study that ended this week. Researchers involved in the study recruited five AIDS sufferers whom had begun to fail treatment, meaning that drugs no longer contained the virus. Three years after injecting these patients with the antisense strain, four of the patients have shown restoration of their damaged immune systems, with partial suppression of the harmful HIV virus.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Weakest Goes to the Wall

Back when slavery was still legal in parts of the United States, the abolitionist vs. slaveholder arguments basically boiled down to a matter of humanity: abolitionists argued that black-skinned people were full-fledged human beings while slavery supporters insisted otherwise. The two arguments had an unspoken assumption in common: enslaving a human being is wrong. Nobody denies that, so let’s debate whether the slaves in question are human beings instead.

I thought of this as I perused an online archive of German propaganda from the Nazi and East German regimes. The East German pieces are especially fascinating because of their novelty. Pop history has covered the Nazis so thoroughly there’s no revelation to be gained from leafing through their propaganda: they hated Jews, loved blondes and thought Germans were better than anybody else. But the GDR propaganda archive contains actual surprises, like this excerpt from an East German article meant to justify the new Berlin Wall:
We no longer wanted to stand by passively and see how doctors, engineers, and skilled workers were induced by refined methods unworthy of the dignity of man to give up their secure existence in the GDR and work in West Germany or West Berlin. These and other manipulations cost the GDR annual losses amounting to 3.5 thousand million marks.
I’d always assumed East Germany justified the wall by calling it necessary to keep out the invading armies of the Western imperialists, similar to our proposed Mexican border fence. Maybe that's what the East Germans were told, but this piece was written for foreign distribution, an attempt to justify the wall to the rest of the world.

I know, “East German Communism sucks” is an outdated point to make in 2006, but I can’t bear to look at any current news sites until after tomorrow, when the elections end and the political ads go away. Propaganda for the Berlin Wall is better, because the wall’s long gone.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Reality Bites

Note to self: the next time real-life work schedules keep me from posting for five days, at least fix things so that my last post, sitting forlornly atop the page for nearly a week, doesn’t have a vaguely ominous title and talk about some guy raided by government agents for a website mocking the TSA.

Thanks and I apologize, all of you who sent concerned e-mails. I’m fine, but of course now if government agents really do disappear me into those secret concentration camps they’re building nobody will think to worry, because of this time when I inadvertently cried wolf. But I'm not a civil-liberties martyr, just a person with a little extra work.

Damn. Don’t you hate when the real world interferes with what you’re trying to do on the Internet?
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