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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

William Saletan doesn't think you've got a pair

William Saletan of Slate Magazine has come to the conclusion that routine body scanning at airports is a lost fight, he may be right.  However this coward seems to go above and beyond in his love for invasion of privacy.
It's time to give up this squeamishness. Forget the etchings and fuzzy negatives. Take the whole picture, TSA: breasts, scrotum, penis, labia, gluteal cleft, whatever. Look at mine so you can look at the next guy's. Because if he's a bomber, that's where you'll find the bomb.

Privacy advocates are fighting to keep the scanners from becoming standard procedure. In today's New York Times, their point man, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, argues, "I don't think anybody needs to see my 8-year-old naked in order to secure [an] airplane."

Sorry, Congressman. You're mistaken. Smugglers aren't stupid. They'll use whatever category of passengers you exclude from scrutiny. That's why terrorists and drug traffickers use women and babies. My 9-year-old and 6-year-old are fair game for the scanner. So's your 8-year-old. There were 8-year-olds on the Detroit flight. I'll bet you every parent of every kid on that flight, in retrospect, would gladly have let their children go through the scanner in exchange for Abdulmutallab getting the same scrutiny.

So firstly I want to address his equation of terrorists to drug traffickers.  Saletan can't even get his argument going before he is expanding the purpose of the body scanning beyond it's original purpose, which is to keep people from getting blown out of the sky.  I don't trust the government to limit the use of any law enforcement technology to any kind of small specific purpose, the federal government is quick to expand any powers it is granted.  First it will be terrorists and drug smugglers, but soon it expands to whatever the crook du jour is.  Remember how secret searches were supposed to protect us from death and dismemberment from above?  Well it appears that the government believes that protection from suspected drug dealers is a good enough cause to bring in this big gun.  Since only a few thousand of these warrants have been issued, it's unlikely that the FBI knows what is in your bedside table, but considering how often the government gets it wrong what you stash under your underwear drawer  is not as certain to be your secret as it was before creeps like Saletan started clamoring for absolute safety at the expense of your privacy.

Secondly Saletan assumes that we are all willing to take one for the team in order to provide him a little more sleep in his first class seat to France.
Let go of your fear of nudity. In the age of pubic powdered explosives, we can't let you board a plane without somebody scrutinizing your naked body.

Does Saletan seriously believe that there is no small contingent of people who have phobias about nudity that are not at least as serious as the fear that some people have of dying in an attack on an airplane?   Why do we need to cater to the second group but not the first?  I mean if Saletan wants to hire a government goon to check out my magnificent pair that's fine with me, but I really don't believe that my daughter needs some potential pervert checking her out before the trip to grandma's house.  What are we going to do to make sure that the people doing the job aren't in it for the jollies?  Are we going to have a questionnaire to weed out the perverts too stupid to check the right answers or does he want us to set up government brainwash camps to perform the duty of creating a sexless class of laborers.  Perhaps we retired the tradition of raising eunuch slaves a couple centuries too early for his taste.  However he intends for us to address this, people who have a serious phobia, a religious tradition of modesty or a desire to protect their children from the prying eyes of the TSA aren't going to just "let go".  They're going to have to do some intense therapy before they fly or just stay off the plane.

William Saletan seems to believe that the majority of people have enough of a fear of terrorists that they would willingly subject themselves to this kind of treatment.  I think he's making a huge wrong assumption.  Everyone that gets on a plane engages in much riskier behavior as soon as they get of the plane.  If you follow the reason link in the last sentence you will see that simply walking around the street or driving to the airport puts you at a much greater risk of an unpleasant death than any terrorist and not one person can get onto a plane without doing at least one of the two.  People drive every day without requiring that their road mates take a breathalyzer, let alone that there be a snapshot of their genitals taken before they climb into the station wagon.  I believe that the desire of most people is to travel conveniently with a general assumption of safety.  We don't demand that every trip we take not be our last.  We smoke, we drink, we have sex with people we should have gotten to know better and in most of those activities we prefer that the government stay at arms length.  I myself prefer that they have as little to do with my travel plans as possible.

Somehow Mr. Saletan believes that we can take measures to keep our privacy if we allow body scanning at every airport, but how are any of us supposed to keep an image of ones body completely secret other than to not let another person have it.  A TSA screener with a hidden camera could do a lot of damage in our world of information tracking.  A video of naked bodies going through an airport could easily be linked to an online ticket agency database by someone who had access to both.  How are you going to make sure that the screener doesn't have a buttonhole camera videotaping the images on this screen?  Will he be working naked like the cocaine processors in American Gangster or will she need to go through her own screening every day on the way into the booth?  Can you really make sure that everyone that has access to the equipment down to the janitor doesn't have the wherewithal or the motivation to tap into the video lines going from the camera to the booth and collect the images for use later? Don't even tell me that the government itself won't be collecting and storing this information as soon as they figure out that body parts other than faces can be used by recognition software to identify suspects.  When that happens every underage drinker or shoplifter in the country will have their nude image on file at the local police station.

Does he seriously believe that a video of Brittany, or Madonna, or Lindsey or the underage Miley Cyrus going through a body scanner wouldn't sell for a multiplier of hundreds to thousands of times the salary of a TSA screener?  To avoid corruption completely we would need to pay the screeners CEO sized wages.  You may say that most celebrities that the public would want to see nude are able to fly private planes but I have a feeling that Nick Cage can tell you that private planes aren't always a guarantee.

So William, I'm not going to let this proposal go on without a fight.  I believe that if you want to catch more terrorists and ensure that flying can be an activity free of risk you need to find a less invasive way to do it.  Assuming that all of us are willing to give up liberty for a more complete guarantee of safety on an almost already riskless activity is ludicrous.  You're making the same mistake that the last presidential administration did by telling everyone that they can suck it up or stay home.

I never thought I would say this but since money talks so call your local congressman and see if they agree that our bodies should be our private business.  If they disagree I'd suggest telling them that your next political donation will be to Rep. Jason Chaffetz.  There I spit it out, give money to a republican to wage a campaign for your privacy.  It makes me sick but I'm put in the awkward position of having the party of Dick Cheney being the guardians of my liberty.

I've got another solution for you Saletan, stay home yourself if you can't stand to take infinitesimal risks.  If you seriously think that all of us are willing to show our testicles as the price of catching a flight, well I say that dicks like you have got a lot of balls.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Failure

So originally I was going to read 52 books in 52 weeks, by my count I read 28.  That however is probably more than I would have read if I hadn't started picking up the reading habit again. Oh yes I read plenty outside the printed page, but books grabbed me in a way that they haven't in a while.  In Bookmark Now one of the writers says that what makes a successful writer is fidelity and I would say that the experience of fidelity that a book provides changes the reading experience as well.  Reading online lets me skip over the boring parts and read what I think is interesting, however the very nature of the linked up article makes some forms of writing completely unworkable online.  The carefully crafted Common Sense would have been a miserable failure if it were a blog instead of a book.  By the time a reader read a few lines of the English budged they would have clicked off to TMZ.  I wonder if a revolution can happen in a wired up society?  Lucky for me for now I live in a country where my every material want is provided for with a minimal amount of work.  But what about people who live now and in the future under brutal regimes?  Will they take TMZ as s substitute for hard reading and hard fighting when the time comes that they won't live another day in chains?  Will we see another Ghandi or will the next one just be an interesting two minute on You tube with derogatory comments filling the bottom of the page?

So yes I'm glad that I read, from real books, I'm glad that I remember the smell of new pages.  I'm glad that my library expanded by four times as many books as I read.

Now on to the lists:

Best poem of the year:

The Most Careless Girl in the Class Had the Most Exquisite Body

Best word:

Rime-used in "In the Mosque of Imam Ali"

Worst word:

Cloying-used everywhere, It's like last years visceral and 2007's vicarious (followed by the redundant "through you" which proves that the user is an idiot trying to inflate his vocabulary).   Cloying wins though because now I can say that using the word cloying has become cloying.

Work that changed my life the most:

Believe it or not Solution Selling.  It not only helped me learn how to sell it also taught me how to negotiate and get along better with people.  Good stuff.

Worst book I read:

You would think from the reviews that it was Bob Dancer's catastrophe of an autobiography but it was actually The Five Temptations of a CEO.  I wish someone would finally put an end to the motivational business book.  If I didn't already have motivation to succeed in business I wouldn't be picking up a business book right?  Stop motivating me and teach me something practical.

So failure it was but it was also a spectacular experience to try to read 52 books in 52 weeks.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Best American Essays 2007

Here it is, the last book of the year. Unless I read one more just to read one, I don't see myself reading one this week for pleasure, it would be like a school assignment if I did. I would just be hoop jumping. I have one more post to make on the project but for now let's look at another work of non-fiction, the best American essays of 2007.

The book starts out with a punch to the teeth with an essay called Werner.  A man is caught in a fire and does what it takes to try to save himself and his cat.  I cried.

The book includes three essays on the conduct of the Bush administration during the Iraq war and the "war on terror", Iraq: The war of the imagination is an indictment of the incompetence of the buildup to war and the execution of the post war period, An Orgy of Power is a good overview of the dangers of a society that is willing to engage in torture, and Rules of Engagement is an overview of the ways that the Bush administration broke the laws of war, engaged in wholesale perfidy and has now put us on a path where the rules of warfare no longer apply.

Afternoon of the Sex Children was the hardest piece. It started out like an essay that you find in a college English textbook. I half expected the author to go into a long lecture on semiotics but it pulled right around.  The article was about how the sexual revolution isn't about liberation, it's about how we have sexualized  every aspect of society and about how the sexual revolution won't be complete until people are free to be asexual. Not overtly straight, bisexual or gay  Why couldn't Brittany, Christina, the Jonas brothers and the Twilight crew be talented kids? Why do we need to project an oversexed identity onto teens? It started out obscure but ended up looping into quite the thought provoking piece.

Operation Gommorrah is another WWII memoir  But can we ever get enough? Highlights include screaming Germans kicking Jews out of bomb shelters and mothers wading through asphalt that has turned to liquid because of firebombs trying to save their babies.  Nothing makes you appreciate a nice peaceful day like a WWII story.

All this is topped off by essays on how much a billionaire should give to charity, why California sucks (and this was written in boom times), why actors suffer stage-fright and a like the cherry on top of a delicious sundae the story of an English woman who 200 years ago cut up little bits of paper to make collages of flowers so accurate and intricate that botanists today still use them.

With all that I would say that this book is one of the best reads I have ever had.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Me Talk Pretty One Day

So this was the last of the Sedaris Trilogy, I wish I would have read it second as it bridges the gap between Naked and When You Are Engulfed in Flames pretty well.  It starts out with stories of David's family and the last half is about moving to France and his time there.  The title bridges the gap between the two, there is an essay about him being in speech therapy in the first half and the last half has him spending a lot of time in French classes.

This one I had heard about when it was first published.  It was one that was on the front page of Amazon for about a year and even spent some time on my wishlist.  I did like it but I don't think it was an experience I would call memorable or revelatory.  Maybe you shouldn't read three Sedaris books in a row.  Reading 50 Sedaris essays in a row was like eating egg rolls as a meal.  It tasted good but I'm not so sure that I've been filled up.  I imagine that when someone writes short stories or essays they expect them to be taken in small bites.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

When you are Engulfed in Flames

This was the second David Sedaris book that I read.  I'm glad I finished Naked first or I would have wondered what the big deal with this Sedaris guy is and why am I reading this,  fortunately I reached for the other book first and this book made all the more sense.

This book is the most recent of his books, it's about a mature David Sedaris'  life and hobbies and spending time walking around Paris and Normandy with his boyfriend Hugh.  It's not as gut splitting as Naked was, I'd almost say it's slightly inferior.  It doesn't quite ring the same bells as Naked does and I think the reason why could be that I'm a slight bit younger than Sedaris.  Maybe I just enjoyed Naked more because I had a similar misspent youth but in our adulthood our differences shine a bit brighter.  For some reason it didn't seem as universal but without talking to more people who have read both books I fear that what I actually mean is that When you are Engulfed in Flames is in a much more different land than I inhabit.

One great feature of the book was his trip to Japan to quit smoking.  Strangely enough even though I quit smoking regularly a few years ago the parts of the story I loved the most were the cultural differences between here and Japan, not the smoking stories.

I did like this book, I do remember laughing at parts and I do remember not putting it down, but I don't remember the experience being one that evolved me and therefore I can't call this book one of the greats.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Million Dollar Video Poker by Bob Dancer

Since Fyodor Dostoevsky there hasn't been anything written about gambling that can be called literature with a straight face.  This book is no exception.  I have a fairly large collection of gambling books, most of them are about Poker, there was a time in my life when being a professional gambler was my dream job, now I'm old enough to appreciate the benefits of health insurance and the kind of company my corporate job provides, I haven't ruled out playing poker as a serious hobby but overtime when it's available is just much more profitable.

Bob Dancer is a pseudonym, many gambling books are written by people who are fully in kayfabe.  The reasons they describe are firstly because they play a dangerous game with the casinos, they don't want to play with a winning player, and also other players, who don't want to talk to you about how they win if their name is going to be mentioned.  Because of this though the writing falls below any kind of journalistic standard.  This book includes gems like "When I asked several High-Limit players if they were surprised that the Venetian rigged drawings every one of them said they were not suprised at all."  As you can see the writing offered is well below the standards that would be acceptable for publishing outside the gambling world, Bob alludes to having a Phd in economics, or at least he says he did Phd work, but his writing doesn't seem to meet even a minimum community college writing 101 standard.

Now I'm not being tough on Bob, he's published and I'm not, and he's writing in a genre where the bar is set by people who come up with "systems" to beat roulette and craps.  Besides the fact that he's not pouring on the punch you in the face vocabulary of Palahniuk or the careful sourcing of a journalist doesn't mean I hated this book.  All I'm saying is that if you read it be prepared to snicker at time to time at some of the more outrageous statements and the clunky pacing.

So "Bob" tells the story of how he moved to Vegas with $6000 and with a combination of coupon hustling, low stakes blackjack counting and perfect video poker play because the best known video poker writer in Vegas.  He loved and lost, loved and lost and loved again, and all the time kept his bankroll under tight control.  It's a thrilling tale and one of those Las Vegas stories that I love, however it's probably the one that's turned me off of any kind of desire to be a casino gambler on a pro level.  Basically it appears that the best odds and slot clubs are usually found in casinos that need the business, and places that need the business are not the places that you want to take your kids.  My kids love going to Vegas more than anywhere else but now that they're old enough to ask why that man is puking in the garbage can I'm probably past the days when I can stay off the strip and call it a family vacation.

So Bob, thanks for the read and the wake up call, I guess I'll go back to work in my cubicle where I feel like a high roller.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Naked by David Sedaris

For my birthday my lovely sister gave me an Amazon gift certificate.  This was a perfect gift and since my Amazon wish-list is always a mile long on books that I would love to read I used it quickly.  Less than a month later I had finished three books, never have I had such a short amount of time from purchase to final read of so may books since many years ago when I could only afford one book at a time.

I really wanted to read some Sedaris, I half heard one of the stories from this book on NPR one Sunday and I was completely hooked.  Also the essay book Bookmark Now mentioned Sedaris in many of the essays.  If print ever dies Sedaris has ensured he would live on by making his essays readable, as in readable out loud.  Some of the writers in Bookmark Now seemed to be a bit critical of Sedaris because of this but honestly I couldn't tell at all that it was anything other than just literature that I was reading.  The same story I heard on the radio, I Like Guys, was a different experience when I was reading it quietly by myself but I absolutely didn't feel it was a diminished experience nor did the story seem to be missing anything.

Most of the book is about his family and growing up, about the relationship between his parents and about his grandmother coming to stay when she could no longer care for herself at her own home.  It's the kind of story that most everyone has, I mean growing up with a more or less weird but loving family but Sedaris is unflinching in his ability to explain the details of what made his experience unique.  It's actually quite nice, you can tell his family is what we would now call dysfunctional but Sedaris seems to resist that kind of stigma and embrace it as normal and lovable.

The book is pretty much in chronological order, from David's growing up, to teenage years, to college and on to the death of his mother.  The book was named after an excursion he made to a nudist colony.  Naked was my least favorite of the essays because it seemed like he took the trip almost to have something to write about.  Not being a nudist himself it's kind of a gonzo journalism stunt but unfortunately it seemed that by the time he went he was too well put together mentally for a gonzo journalism stunt to be interesting.   Half of what makes Hunter S. Thompson such a thrill to read is that you're wondering if Hunter will end his trip in the psyche ward or in traction.  With Sedaris, while it was funny, it never really felt like he was embracing an experience, just taking a vacation from his normal, which is offbeat to be sure but still I didn't see how this essay fit in with the rest.

If you are unfamiliar with Sedaris this is a fantastic entry point.  I'm glad I read it before his other books because it put so much in context for my other reads which will be in posts to come.  So no I won't complain about Naked, it was an extra thrown into a fantastic autobiographical collection and I'd have to say I'm very happy to have read it.  Thanks sis for the present!