Carter Thinks NSA Spies on Him

NSA“As a matter of fact, you know, I have felt that my own communications were probably monitored.” That’s what former President Jimmy Carter told CNN today. He added that if he wants to write a world leader, he sends it on paper through the post office. When I heard that, I had two thoughts. First: my God, even a former president has to worry about this nonsense! Second: my God, now the government is going to monitor his mail! But then I thought: no!

To a very large extent, the government listens to our phone calls and reads our email simply because it can. It’s like the old joke about why a dog licks his balls. But a better example of it is the video store. In the old days of video stores, getting an account was slightly more complicated than becoming a foster parent. Their applications requested ridiculous amounts of information including social security numbers and drivers license numbers. Because I’m a pliant person, I always provided this information. But then I got married to a privacy freak and she absolutely refused.

That’s when I found out that some things. First, the video stores didn’t check the accuracy of the information. Second, they didn’t do anything with the information other than put it into their databases. Third, they didn’t care if you gave them the information. They were just collecting it because they could. As long as it didn’t cost them anything, it was great. But the thought that it might cost a single video rental was not worth it.

As a result of this, I suspect that the government will not go after Carter’s mail. After all, they can’t think he is doing anything wrong. Going after his mail would take effort whereas tapping his email just requires pushing a button. But who knows? Carter also mentioned that President Obama never requests his advice on foreign affairs. He thinks this is because of his position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Carter is very even handed about that and in modern American politics, everyone is supposed to just pretend that the Israelis are always acting morally and the Palestinians are just a bunch of terrorists.

My newest concern is the spy fly. This is a drone the size of a fly. I am sure that they have these because I’m sure that my tech partner and I could make one. Maybe it would be more the size of a moth, but if we could do that, the government could do a fly. And that means that they can spy on us at any time. Carter’s letter might be safe, but the fly could record him as he writes it. The only thing is that the government would have to have agents within a couple of blocks. So that gets back to the government having to make an effort. So that’s something. But still, a government that spies on ex-presidents is not free, open, or democratic.

White Out in the Heart of Texas

Bette Nesmith GrahamOn this day in 1924, Bette Nesmith Graham was born. Who, you ask? In the 1950s, she lived in Texas and worked in a bank. But to show you how much things have changed, the highest position in the bank that was open to women was executive secretary—the position that Graham held. But to supplement her earnings, she painted the windows of the bank during holidays. Remember when they did that? It was cool.

Anyway, the point is that Graham was an artist and a secretary. And she realized that rather than erasing mistakes, which is what typists did, it would be better to do what artists did: paint over them. She later said, “So I decided to use what artists use. I put some tempera water-based paint in a bottle and took my watercolor brush to the office. I used that to correct my mistakes.” She had invented liquid paper.

She didn’t do anything with the invention for five years other than use it. Although her bosses didn’t like it to be used, it became popular with other secretaries at the bank. And in a detail right out of a very boring Breaking Bad spin-off, she worked with her son’s chemistry teacher to improve it. Eventually, she started a business and employed 200 people. And she sold the company to Gillette shortly before she died. She is a true entrepreneur.

Happy birthday Bette Nesmith Graham!

Dad and I Go See Gravity

Gravity - MovieI took my father to see Gravity at the cheap theater today. And our reactions were exactly the opposite. We both rather liked it. But I loved the first hour and thought the last half hour was total rubbish. My dad thought the first hour was kind of boring and the last half hour was a thrill ride. He even seemed a little wobbly as we walked out of the film.

I was not prepared for just how realistic the film was. Almost from the first shot, I was squirming in my chair. And then, when the debris hit, I was lost. Part of this was due to the way the physics was done in the film. I’m sure that there were some things that were wrong, but by and large, Gravity was a treatise on Newton’s first and third laws. Once Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) starts rotating, she continues to rotate. There is no friction to slow her down. That’s the first law! Later in the film she uses a fire extinguisher to propel herself to the space station. When it is empty, she is still floating away. So she throws the empty can and moves in the opposite direction. What a great example of the third law and conservation of momentum!

But none of that exactly explained why I so liked the film. The essence of it is Stone’s character. She isn’t a professional astronaut. She a medical engineer who has been taken up to space to add something on the Hubble Space Telescope. She is not having fun. In fact, she is behaving very much like I would. She is, in other words, a real person. Along with her is veteran space shuttle captain Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). He is the action hero cliche—albeit a more nuanced one than we usually get. As long as he is around, Stone can depend upon him. When he’s gone, she kind of freaks out. Again: just like I would. And I suspect like all of us would.

The problem comes at the one hour mark. At that point a little movie magic happens and Stone goes from “person doing her best to deal with unimaginably difficult situation” to Ripley at the end of Aliens. Suddenly she can do anything. But it isn’t just her attitude that changes. It is the plot. Before then, everything was careful. The parachute was caught on the space station, so she had to remove it. Stuff like that. But then, in the third act, it was all “will to succeed.” She still had to be smart and brave as she had been throughout the film, but suddenly she had a silly self-confidence and the unreasonable good luck that comes to Americans who are true of heart. (That’s interesting given that it is mostly a Mexican production.)

Ultimately, Gravity is a disaster film. It is just that it happens in space. And it is interesting because the main character is so poorly suited to the challenge. But at the end, it is clear that Stone is not behaving as she does for her own sake; she is doing it for ours—and this takes away from the realism that existed up to that point. Or at least that’s the best take on it. It is also possible that the writers decided to change a relatively complex character into a simple character. I don’t think so. Regardless, the last act has no drama in it. It is pure momentum—the plot speeding to its end as inexorably as the escape pod speeds to earth. Both are entirely predictable.

But two good acts is two more than most films have. And endings are always hard—especially when the beginning has been so good. Certainly, my father had a better experience. It’s better to end well. But I still thought the film worked. I was just disappointed.

Libertarian Fail on Birth Control

Emily CrockettEmily Crockett has written one of the best articles I’ve read all year, Timothy Lee, Latest Mansplainer on the Birth Control Benefit, Gets It All Wrong. It all started with the puppet video about reproductive rights. Crockett tweeted out a link to the video adding, “Puppets are creepy. So is your employer deciding whether you can get birth control.” Apart from the unnecessary puppet slight, I’m right with her. But then came Timothy Lee. You may know him, because I’ve written about his excellent writing about intellectual property. He a libertarian and when it comes to such issues, he is surprisingly good.

But when it comes to most issues, Lee is just an ignorant conservative. Truthfully, he reminds me of myself at that age. Anyway, he replied to Crockett’s tweet with this own, “Luckily people are free to pay for their own birth control.” Just on it’s surface this is such a stupid comment. What’s the point of having health insurance through your employer if they can decide what kind of care is reasonable? As Crockett noted, an employer might be a Christian Scientist. In that case, they ought to be able to stop their employees from getting cancer treatments because God can cure everything except for broken bones.

The whole thing does point out the need for government provided single-payer health insurance. But, of course, Lee would be totally against that. Just like a typical libertarian who has thought through everything half way, Lee forgets about the history of employer provided healthcare and how it is part of people’s compensation. Because here’s the thing that isn’t widely known: Hobby Lobby—the company going before the Supreme Court to try to deny their employee’s birth control coverage—provided health insurance before Obamacare that—Wait for it!—provided birth control coverage. So taking it away now is just a way of giving women a large cut in pay.

What’s more, the whole thing shows that this is not about religious liberty at all. It’s about grandstanding. And if the Supreme Court finds for Hobby Lobby, it will show that it is no longer a judicial body but just a bunch of (at least five) partisan hacks. That’s why I’m not at all convinced that Hobby Lobby will lose. But based upon what Lee said, I can only assume that he thinks they ought to win. And it demonstrates that libertarianism is at base just a philosophy developed by the power elite to justify and expand their power. Thus, libertarians tend to upper-middle class (or better) white men. It is not surprising that Lee is an upper-middle class white man.

Crockett goes on to make some excellent points about the issue. I recommend checking out the whole thing, but here’s the guts of it:

Now, the option to deny women this opportunity is supposed to be about religious liberty. But in all the hand-wringing over the souls of secular corporations like Hobby Lobby, many forget that employees—flesh-and-blood people, not abstract entities—have religious liberty too

It’s funny, isn’t it, that there has been so much public outrage over an issue that just happens to be about helping women determine their sexual and reproductive autonomy. Is there any other procedure covered by insurance but objected to by a religious minority—blood transfusions for Jehovah’s Witnesses, or vaccinations for Christian Scientists—that we would seriously consider letting members of those groups not just refuse to use themselves, but also deny to others who don’t share their beliefs? Why do we give so much deference as a society to people with sincerely held beliefs that just happen to harm women, and why do we consider letting them set such a dangerous precedent that could so easily restrict other freedoms in the name of an employer’s “conscience”? …

The thing is, that’s not a question people are bothering to ask about Viagra—which does require copays but is still covered under insurance—or prostate exams, or well-baby visits. The “we’re paying for you to have sex” meme really got off the ground when people got it into their heads that women are getting “free birth control.” C’mon, we can’t have freeloaders, can we? Freedom isn’t “free”!

Except it’s not about the no-copay thing, at least not really. That fueled the fires of indignation, but the religious right is pushing for insurance plans that don’t even cover birth control—and most of them already did, even if they required copays. That’s an extra step back, and one that makes coverage for Viagra that much more awkward to explain.

The whole episode goes to show how stupid it is to glibly apply ideology to complex issues. But this is the way with libertarianism, is it not? There’s some theoretical ideal that it pushes without a thought to the practical consequences to actual people. Timothy Lee’s tweet is entirely typical of the libertarian world view. There answer to every problem is, “Well, be rich!” But when you look at actual issues and actual human beings, the philosophy is cruel and useless.

Two Points on The Human Centipede

The Human CentipedeRecently, I was told about the film The Human Centipede. I figured it was something campy like “bug man.” But no. It is about an evil scientist who connects three people together, mouth to anus. Hence: human centipede. I have not seen it. I will not see it. I have a problem with scatological material. But I haven’t been able to get the film out of my head. So I figured that I would relate a couple of thoughts.

First, in the tradition of William Castle, the film’s writer-director Tom Six claimed that the idea was scientifically valid. It isn’t. Other people have mentioned this, focusing on the problem of nutrients in the second and third segments of the “creature.” Another problem is bacteria from the first segment would kill the other two (this actually happens in the film, although you would think that the doctor would have thought about that). But I’ll admit, neither of those problems would happen immediately and I assume the film takes place over a short period of time. The bigger problem is that defecating into someone’s mouth would cause them to vomit. The only place the liquid could go is out the rather constricted nose and so the second segment would surely drown almost immediately.

There really is no way around this without doing a complete reworking of the esophagus and windpipe. I know: it’s just a film. I have two responses to this. First, if I’m going to complain about the physics of Iron Man 3, I’m definitely going to complain about the biology of The Human Centipede. Second, I bring this up as a way of making the horror of the film less intense. The truth is that in a general sense, this kind of human experimentation has gone on before, most notably at Auschwitz.

This brings me to my second point. The idea of the film came from a “joke” that Tom Six made “about punishing a child molester [he] saw on TV by stitching his mouth to the anus of an overweight truck driver.” As the impetus for a film, I find this very troubling. It makes the film into a kind of torture fantasy. It is made all the worse when the head of the centipede admits to the doctor that he deserves his fate because he treated his family poorly or something.

I understand the desire for vengeance. And I can be as angry at cruelty and injustice as anyone. But if the Angel of Death himself, Josef Mengele, were left to my justice I would not torture him. Certainly I think he deserved to be executed—a fate that sadly never befell him. To some extent, it is just a matter of what torture says about us. If a human screams or cries because of me, I feel bad—regardless of how awful he may have behaved. Because I am the one doing the harm.

But it’s more than just that. What is done is done. Our job should be to stop such madness—such cruelty. And vengeance is not about justice. It is not about protecting the innocent. At base, it is about what causes people like Mengele to prey on the weak—the pleasure of violence. It’s obviously complex, but knowing that the society does the same kinds of thing only makes such freelance behavior more likely. When these people are in our custody, they are the weak.

Having said that, the film itself looks really well made. It is an update of the mad scientist genre that we so associate with Vincent Price and John Carradine. I don’t like the basis for the film and I don’t think it speaks well of Tom Six. But with regards to the film itself, the only reason I won’t watch it is that I can’t deal with the scatology of it. My understand is that the film is not explicit—or extremely so. But I’m having a hard enough time just writing this article without running to the bathroom to vomit. But if you are different, you may want to check it out. But if you do, please don’t tell me about it.

Afterword

In the sequel, The Human Centipede 2, the antagonist is not a doctor and apparently uses a staple gun to connect his ten-person centipede together. As a result, the film has far more explicit scatological content. Reading about it, I’ve begun to wonder if it isn’t a fetish for Tom Six. Such films always have a large aspect of this.

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