Glass Maze Every jumbled pile of person

The Surveillance State Saves You Money!

My auto insurance company has generously offered to reduce my premium if I let them spy on me:

Here’s how it works: Using your vehicle’s OnStar, In-Drive or SYNC communication service, we collect basic information about your driving. We then use the information to calculate your discount. The safer you drive, the more you save–it’s that easy.

Just let us track your every move and know where you are at all times and probably store your location history in poorly-secured data centers with direct conduits to NSA servers, and we’ll maybe knock a couple of bucks off your bill. It’s that easy!

One nice thing about the Snowden revelations is that I can point out how incredibly creepy and intrusive this is, and that it just feeds the insatiable appetite of the corporate/nsa surveillance complex, and people don’t start fitting me for a new tinfoil hat.

Letter to My Representative about Syria

I am writing to urge you to vote against President Obama’s resolution to go to war with Syria. As terrible as the tragedy in that country is, I feel very strongly that any intervention on our part will do nothing more than exacerbate the situation there, and quite possibly draw us further into the conflict.

The Assad regime has successfully entrenched itself in the portions of the country it still controls, has the support of Iran, Russia and other regional and international powers, and is fighting for its very existence: it’s very unlikely that anything the United States does, short of a full military assault, will curb their ruthlessness.

The opposition is a fractured and unknowable welter of militias and guerrilla groups, all working at cross purposes — some of which are antithetical to our interests and the interests of the region.

Despite the assurances of the administration, it’s impossible to say how a military strike will affect the balance of power there. Our intervention in places we do not understand has created monsters in the past, and I fear that an ill-considered attack here will create monsters again.

I realize that the president, and Secretary of State Kerry, have said repeatedly that they are not trying to influence the direction of the Syrian civil war, but the plain truth is that they cannot know what effect a military assault will have. If the last fifteen years of American foreign policy have taught us anything, it’s that we do not understand the Middle East, nor can we predict the consequences of our actions there. All of our recent military adventures have been masterclasses in the law of unintended consequences.

Furthermore, the resolution, as currently written, grants the executive branch far more than a narrow license to attack Syria — the Senate bill, in particular, appears to be something of a carte blanche, granting the President more or less unrestricted authority to use force to “defend the national security interests of the Unites States.”

Our founders vested congress with the sole power to declare war for a very good reason: something as momentous as waging war should not be the sole provence of any one branch of government, or, for that matter, any one person. Nevertheless, the executive has repeatedly arrogated this authority to itself over the years, and the results, more often than not, have been disastrous.

I don’t understand what the administration hopes to achieve with this attack. Their stated reasoning — to discourage the use of chemical weapons — is unconvincing and, arguably, unachievable. And their repeated references to Hitler, Hussein, “Munich moments” and weapons of mass destruction are chilling echoes of the propaganda that the Bush administration used to justify its disastrous intervention in Iraq.

This is the logic of a war machine, which by its very nature can’t help but see every problem through the lens of military action. The question of how to handle the Syrian tragedy requires a wiser, more expansive, less compromised vision.

Please vote against this resolution.

Thank you.


Portrait of Beau

When we first met Beau his name was Lucky. That’s what the humane society had written on his nametag, at any rate. Lucky struck us then — and now, a decade later — as a pretty poor name for a dog who’d been marooned at the pound not once, but twice.

He came up to the front of his cage to check us out, the platonic form of a beagle: compact, tricolor, giant floppy ears, huge snout, big brown eyes. Adorable. He sniffed our hands and wagged his tail and looked at us with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.

It’s a look we’d become very familiar with over the years: nervous anticipation, guarded hope. His last owners had sent him back to the pound because of some vague, unspecified problem with their kids: they’d written their reasons on the release form in some haste, a couple of scrawled, gnomic sentences that raised more questions than they answered.

And there was no indication of how he’d come here in the first place. We’ve always suspected that he had a fraught puppyhood — he had nothing of the breezy, devil-may-care ease we’d read about later, in the beagle books. He was worried, all the time, about everything.

Anyway. We changed his name to Beauregard.

Sandy drove us home from the pound. I sat in the back, with Beau. He paced around for a while, and then planted his front paws on my leg and stuck his snout out the window. He did this naturally, without hesitation, as if we’d known each other for years. I stroked his back, and watched him watch the world rush by.

That’s when it started, I think: with that effortless gesture of trust, he stepped smoothly into my affections. I didn’t know it then — and would deny it for many years to come — but he’d cleaved himself to me. I think I loved him dearly, from that first moment.

He launched himself through the back door as soon as we got home and went on an inaugural sniffing run, sticking his snout into every corner: an olfactory cartographer building a scent map of his new world. He found the food and water bowls we’d bought the day before, his crate, his soft toys (which he would soon tear to pieces). He noted the position of the refrigerator, the pantry, the low drawer where we kept his snacks, and marked them all for further investigation. He found all the softest places in the house. He found the best sightlines for the guard duty that no one had asked him to assume.

Somewhere along the way he found a draft dodger and picked it up. That’s what he did when he was anxious: he put stuff in his mouth. Tennis balls, socks, discarded plastic bottles, nylabones, small cushions — whatever was nearby and mouth-filling and not immediately edible would get repurposed into a kind of security blanket.

Beau and the Draftcatcher

Finally, investigations complete, he came back and stared at us, tailing wagging. Ok, now what?

Sandy had to go back to work. I saw her off, and looked uncertainly at the dog. He looked back at me, then padded into the kitchen.

The house was quiet. I picked up a book.

And then, the sound.

Imagine a jackhammer convention in a hurricane. Imagine a choir of slightly deaf air raid sirens covering a Metallica song. Imagine a volcano erupting into a planet-sized megaphone. I shot off the couch, trying to remember where we kept the Armageddon kit, and then glanced into the kitchen — and realized that all that calamitous din was coming out of the cute (and heretofore quiet) little creature we’d just brought home. He was standing at the glass doors, hackles raised, tremoring, watching a poodle walk by.

It seemed impossible that something so small could make a sound so big.

We hadn’t done our research. We didn’t know about beagles: that the British aristocracy had bred them to be deafening. The old empire assigned beagle-kind the task of running after rabbits as loudly as possible, and Beau was a stalwart in that grand tradition. He didn’t even need rabbits to do his duty.

That bark would make us by far the loudest townhouse in our quiet little neighborhood. It would detonate without warning, at the slightest provocation, for reasons ranging from the mundane to the inscrutable. You could hear it from down the block. Our neighbors complained, sweetly. We learned to keep the windows slightly cracked when he was in the car.

Over the years we read wistfully about collars that emitted high-pitched squeals when they detected loud noises, bark suppression surgery, psychotropic pooch tranquilizers — and reluctantly judged them all too cruel. We drew the curtains and locked ourselves in small rooms with him and tried to understand the psychology of chronic barking. We put coins in an empty soda cans and shook them at him, forced him to sit, spritzed his snout with water until it was drenched, commanded, shouted, pleaded.

None of it worked. Trying to unbark a beagle is like trying to unbright the sun: it’s not just impossible, it doesn’t make any sense. Manic barking is as much a part of a beagle’s identity as floppy ears and giant snouts and insatiable appetites. You can have a beagle and live with constant barking or not have a beagle and not live with constant barking. There isn’t much of a middle ground.


In those early days, the not-having-a-beagle option was very tempting. I’d regularly threaten to take him back to the pound, try to pawn him off on my brother, my mom, passing strangers. He’s very quiet, I shouted, over the howling. You barely know he’s there.

One day, when we were out walking, a woman pulled over and rushed out of her car and bent over Beau. “He’s the perfect beagle! Can I pick him up?” she said, and picked him up.

We held our breath. One thing we’d learned in our short time with Beau is that he did not like to be picked up. But he submitted calmly, his head craned forward, sniffing. He took to her, immediately.

“He’s beautiful,” she said. She had lots of beagles. She loved beagles! If we ever decided we couldn’t keep him, she said, we should definitely call her.

There was a small silence. A tiny devil floated down to my shoulder, smirking. I glanced at the other shoulder, looking for a matching angel. There wasn’t one.

Ok, let’s unload this beagle and go home, said the devil.

I looked at Sandy. “We just got him, actually,” she was saying. “We like him a lot.”

I looked back at the lady, and felt my head nodding.

What the hell are you doing? said the devil.

“I think we’ll keep him,” said Sandy, smiling.

I told my head to stop nodding, but my mouth flopped open instead, and said: “Yeah.”

What? NO! Have you lost your mind? This is our chance, man!

We watched the woman get back in her car. Beau had spotted another beagle across the street and was running manically back and forth in an area narrowly circumscribed by the length of his leash, baying like the end of the world. The din split the peaceful summer afternoon in half.

The woman’s car reached the intersection, paused, turned right. Disappeared.

You. Are. An. Idiot, said my devil, and disappeared in a puff of brimstone.

I thought about that lady a lot over the next couple of years. One of the days I thought about her most was when Beau got off his leash.

He’d picked up the scent of something and was straining relentlessly toward it, his entire body tensed. I was pulling in the opposite direction, trying to get him into the house, when the clasp gave and he shot off across the yard, over a hill, and disappeared.

I took off after him. When I got out to the street he was already far away, chasing a dog at least twice his size down the sidewalk.

I’m not much of a runner. My legs generally spend most of their time under a desk, and I still remember the look my elementary school track teacher gave me after a particularly egregious time trial — this odd, despairing mixture of mirth and exasperation.

But I like to think he would have been grudgingly non-exasperated with me that day. I managed to keep Beau in sight, albeit as a furry speck in the distance — until the sidewalk curved around a small hillock, and he was gone. The main road, with its endless river of traffic, wasn’t far beyond.

By the time I rounded the bend I was more or less out of air, and my legs were pining mutinously for a desk to hide under.

Here’s what I saw: Beau sniffing at a nearby patch of grass, just beyond the bend. The other dog sniffing at a different patch of grass, a few feet away.

It was a rather peaceful scene. They seemed completely unaware of each other.

Beau raised his head and studied me, in a hey-what’s-up-got-any-snausages sort of a way.

After a few moments, during which I produced no snausages, he bent back to his sniffing.

You can walk to the pound from here, said my shoulder devil, from the tiny easy-chair he’d set up in the hollow of my clavicle. It’ll take five hours, max. Totally worth it.

When I got done hyperventilating, I picked Beau up and turned around and walked home.

Beau had an outsized personality, and a certain way of doing things, and he soon settled into a routine. Several things became quickly apparent:

He loved sleeping, and loved sleeping next to Sandy in particular. He’d get up on the couch and curl himself into a tiny ball — a kind of hermetically sealed fortress of warmth — and press himself against her with his snout tucked under his tail, rumbling happily when she stroked his back.

Curled up, Sleeping

He slept loudly, and adorably.

Every morning, after he woke up, he’d go through the same complex and baffling routine: emerge from his crate, stretch out to his full length, rub his snout down vigorously with his forepaws, flip over onto his back, writhe against the carpet, flip back over, shake himself thoroughly – and then, finally look at us, breakfast in his eyes.

The Face of Need

He had a preternatural sense of smell. He could follow the cooling trail of rival neighborhood dogs for miles, and smell them long before they appeared over the horizon. He could detect tiny morsels of food we’d forgotten in the pockets of jackets or backpacks or sweaters or purses (and then tear the jacket/backpack/sweater/purse apart until he got to it). Something it seemed like he could smell into the future, marking the exact spot place where a discarded chicken bone would appear the next day, and then go right to it. He was never wrong.

He loved dryer sheets, and hated them. He’d root through fresh laundry until he found one, tear it savagely apart, and then flip over and rub himself against the pieces. It was never really clear why.

He loved hanging out with us, and hated being left alone. When we came home and let him out of his crate he’d rush past us and find something to put in his mouth (a sock or tennis ball or towel or destroyed plush toy), rush back, rush away, rush back, gallop upstairs, jump on the bed and run around in circles, barking hysterically.

And then, after a while, he’d trot calmly back downstairs, wagging his tail.

Beagle and Towel

One day, when he he was six years old, we woke up and found him curled up against the wall, trembling uncontrollably.

The thing about Beau — his singular feature, after the unrelenting cuteness and loudness — was his tankness. He never got any heavier than 25 pounds or so, but most of that weight was just straight-up density. We stepped on him a lot early on, unaccustomed to his constant presence underfoot, and closed refrigerator doors on his head, and dropped stuff on him. During his nightly rampages, when he tore wildly around the house for no good reason, he’d occasionally lose control and slam hard into a table leg or a chair or a wall. It didn’t even slow him down. He’d just pick himself up and continue the rampage, darting from room to room, clawing up hanks of carpet with each hairpin turn.

Everything bounced off of him. He was a tank.

But the trembling wouldn’t stop, and he seemed helplessly in its thrall. The vet told us that his electrolytes were severely out of whack and he was dangerously dehydrated and they didn’t know why. They put him on an IV to get his fluids got back up, and then sent him home.

He started shaking again a week later. We took him back in. Same baffling symptoms. They did a bunch of tests, came up empty, gave him more fluids, sent him home.

This happened several more times before they figured out what was going on, at last: Addison’s disease, an extremely rare disorder of the adrenal gland that starves your body of the hormones it needs to keep things in homeostasis. The Wikipedia entry for Addison’s is a laundry list of apparently unrelated symptoms: it’s one of those illnesses that looks like every other illness. We’re lucky that our vet diagnosed it so quickly. It would’t be the first time they saved his life.

The good news is that Addison’s is treatable, with steroids and a monthly injection of hormones. He was back to normal a week later, shattering our pleasant domestic silences with deafening aplomb. We had to guard our food carefully again. He resumed his nightly rampages.

Beau and Sandy at the Park

It took us a bit longer to recover. This was Beau’s first brush with serious illness, and it was, frankly, terrifying. I remember the initial relief retreating before a sudden wave of panic: there was something wrong with our dog. It was fixable, he was fine, he was still a tank — but even tanks have their weaknesses, and eventually one of them would be his undoing.

I don’t remember very much about my youth, but I remember this: walking home from school on a hot summer day with my friend Ferris, seeing a beautiful Golden Retriever, pointing it out. Ferris asked whether I wanted a dog of my own, and I said no, absolutely not. I’d be sad all the time, I said, thinking about how sad I was going to be when he dies.

That premonition of grief came rushing back to me now. When we sat down to dinner that night, I looked at Beau and saw the tragedy he’d narrowly averted lurking nearby, waiting patiently.

I reached out to pet him. He scooted up close and looked at me with those giant brown soulful eyes, and then darted forward, snatched a sandwich off my plate, and ran.

Beau was always smart, but he was an absolute genius when it came to his primary preoccupation, which was food: finding it, identifying it, stealing it, wolfing it down as quickly as possible. The only thing he didn’t excel at was savoring it, but he wasn’t particularly interested in that anyway: savoring food was for dabblers and weak-willed aesthetes. Beau was into volume. Sure, you could pause and reflect on the sublime perfection of the snausage making its down your throat, but in that moment of weakness someone might drop a grape or turn away from a meatloaf or open a refrigerator. Why reflect pointlessly on what’s already in your mouth when there’s still a whole world out there to eat?

Beau Lurks Under a Grapefruit

In the beginning, he was reckless. He ate the protuberant bits off of a wooden sculpture, half a bar of soap, some toothpaste. He usually drew the line at dogshit (a small blessing) but you could tell he was a bit disappointed in himself whenever he turned away from a reeking pile of poop. A stronger, more dedicated beagle would have seen fecal matter for what it truly was: a former food that, with an effort of will, could be food again.

The motto in our house was Eat high. Beagles are mercifully low to the ground, and as long as you kept everything five feet or so aboveground it was probably safe. It’s hard to remember to do that all the time though, and he was ever-vigilant.

Beagle vs Peanut Butter Jar

Our nieces and nephews had a hard time of it when they visited. Trust me: there’s nothing funnier than watching five-year-olds totter around the house with their arms thrust high above their heads, a cookie at the apex of their reach, a beagle trailing close behind.

As Beau matured, he learned new stratagems. One of them was the Pee Grift. Sometime after we sat down for dinner, he’d start agitating to go outside, looking at me plaintively (I sure don’t want to piss on this swell carpet, mister!), running to the front door and then back again. Sandy always saw through his lies, but I couldn’t, and he knew it. So I’d take him out, he’d lift his leg for a token squirt, and, as soon as we got back, tear upstairs to my unprotected plate.

I enjoyed walking him almost as much as he enjoyed being walked, I think, but it was always a tense affair — avoiding discarded chicken bones (and other dangerous contraband), and dogs, and small children (who tended to run up to him in ways that made both of us nervous) was exhausting. It felt like being out on patrol in enemy territory. I was at least half the problem — Sandy always said that my own nervousness travelled down the leash and infected him.

But he got mellower as time went on. Not about the food, never about the food, but he did begin to tolerate the attention of strangers, standing warily still and letting them pet him. I think he even began to enjoy it.

I remember in particular an encounter at Brighton Dam, not long ago. A tiny redheaded boy was tottering around the swingsets, weaving uncertainly back and forth on new legs. At some point he saw Beau, pointed, let out a delighted whoop and made his lurching staccato way over, parents in tow.

Brighton Dam

We sat down beside Beau to chaperone this encounter, as we chaperoned every encounter with small people, ready to jump in if things got dicey.

The kid leaned in, touched Beau’s back — Gentle, gentle, urged his mother — then exploded in a sudden peal of laughter. He walked around in a circle, his attention flitting from the swingset to his mother to a passing cloud to a nearby duck and then, finally, back to us. His eyes widened — Oh yeah! Dog! — and he let out another delighted laugh and rushed back in, with a suddenness and velocity that would once have sent Beau into a panicked fit of barking.

But he was calm throughout. He received the boy’s affection with patience and grace, tinged only slightly with the old nervousness.

“He’s a sweet dog,” said the mother.

He is, we agreed. Worried about everything, scarred by his multiple stints in the pound, perpetually afraid that we were going to leave and never come back. But sweet, underneath it all. He’d always been sweet.

“How old is he?” she asked, and seemed surprised when we told her. “Wow. He looks great.”

He really did. He was trim and fit, and could still call on deep reserves of manic unhinged energy when the occasion called for it. The rich browns around his muzzle were greying, and he’d lost a lot of his hearing, and he wasn’t as interested in the epic 45-minute walks he demanded in the early days — but otherwise he seemed like the same dog we’d brought home a decade ago.

He wasn’t, though. He was sick.

A couple of weeks before Brighton Dam, we’d found a hard lump near his ribcage, and the samples our vet took out of it were worrisome. We can send this to the lab, they told us. Or we can just remove the lump right now.

Let’s get it out, we said.

I dropped him off on a Thursday morning. It would be a fairly routine surgery. They were going to clean his teeth while he was under, and he’d probably have to wear the cone of shame for a while, but after that things would go back to normal.

The vet called an hour after I left. Way too soon.

Oh dear, she said, when I picked up the phone. Do you have a few minutes?

They’d done some x-rays, as a precaution, to see if anything else was going on, and found tumors in his lungs. They were inoperable, she said. Chemo was an option, but at his age it would almost certainly be more cruelty than cure. He probably had a few weeks. Months, maybe. There was no point in putting him through a surgery.

You can come get him whenever you like, she told me, kindly.

I tried to say something, but couldn’t find the breath for words.

Eventually, she hung up.

We spent more time with him after that. Life is a tapestry of regret, woven painstakingly over the course of years, and one of our greatest regrets is that Beau had to spend so much of his time alone — our jobs usually kept us out of the house all day. I started working from home more, and we stopped going out as much. We brought him along with us whenever we could. We watched for signs.

For his part, Beau just went on like nothing was wrong, as befit his tankish, indomitable nature. He seemed to get tired more quickly than usual, and his breathing coarsened a little when he slept, but otherwise he just careened blithely through his days, greeting us at the door with the same manic joy, whether we’d been out for five minutes or five hours. You’re home! Where’ve you been! Do you have food! You’re home! You’re home!

Because what he valued most, I think — more than dinnertime, more than following scent trails to forbidden morsels of quasi-food, more than baying at passing gaggles of children — was being with us.

One week stretched into two, and then three. A month. Two. Dogs hide their pain instinctively, so we don’t really know if the tumors growing inside and outside his body hurt him. He never let on if they did.

What did torment him was his leg. It had been bothering him for almost a year, an ailment we’d always chalked up to arthritis and old age, but soon after the diagnosis he started limping more or less all the time. Sometimes the pain rose to a fever pitch, impossible to hide, and he paced the bedroom in the middle of the night, crying. We sat up with him, comforting him, feeding him painkillers until the agony subsided.

We took him in for better pain meds. And when those stopped working, we took him back again. They don’t get much stronger than this, they told us.

It’s a terrible responsibility, deciding when a life is no longer worth living. But, at some point, the suffering decides for you.

We spent another week with him, hardly ever leaving his side. The pain flared up once or twice, but he carried on as usual, because he was a tank.

On a Monday morning, we took him to the park and hung out there for a couple of hours. It was a beautiful day. He sniffed at grass and benches and trees, watched dogs and children go by, lapped up some water, wolfed down the snacks we’d brought.

And then we packed up, and loaded him in the car for the last time, and drove to the vet.

I find I can’t write about his death. It’s been almost a month already, but the memory is still too raw: a bare nerve, astonishingly painful to the touch.

He was afraid, in the way he was always afraid at the vet. But he died peacefully, without pain, with us beside him.

We stayed with him for a while afterwards. We’d never seen him so still.

His food and water bowls are still in the corner where they’ve always been. His crate is downstairs, beside the couch, his goodies drawer still full of goodies. I still have reminders on my calendar for heartworm pills, flea and tick repellant, monthly hormone shots. I don’t think either of us want to face up to the symbolic act of putting these things away.

The house feels empty. We don’t spend much time there. We eat out a lot.

This will fade. Time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds, but it does scab them over, and when the scabs are thick enough we’ll put away his things and carry on.

Parts of me want to just forget about him, entirely — a familiar impulse, for me, and an ignoble one. He wasn’t just our dog: he was our companion, our friend, our family. Every beautiful thing in the world contains at its core a kernel of tragedy. To reject the tragedy is to reject the beauty. There’s nothing like your dog perking up when you get home, rushing over to greet you, wagging his tail so hard that his whole body sways, pressing against you, soaking up your love and giving you his in equal measure.

I was wrong. It’s worth the sadness. All of it.

We miss you, Beau.

Sleeping in the Sunset

Specialization is for Insects


A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Do I get to not be an insect if I can (sort of) do (approximately) three of those things?

Brave New Walled Garden

Is it better to buy Mac applications directly from developers, or from the Mac App Store? Wolf Renztsch enumerates the pros and cons of both alternatives and concludes that, ultimately, the new sandboxing requirements tilt the balance decisively toward direct purchase. Here’s the salient point:

Less Risk of Losing Your Software Investments: I bought Divvy via the Mac App Store. Unfortunately Divvy relies on Apple’s Accessibility APIs, which aren’t allowed for sandboxed apps. That means aside from minor bug fixes, I will no longer receive updates for the application I purchased.

… Sandboxing is just the latest App Store rule change, I’m sure there’s more to come. All things being equal, it’s safer to buy directly instead of being cut off from your own software based on an arbitrary Apple policy change.

Sandboxing aside, this is the key consideration: whether you’re comfortable allowing Apple to be the aperture through which your app purchases must pass. There are undeniable advantages to this, all of them revolving around better user experience.

But Apple has demonstrated over and over again its willingness to abuse the power they’ve granted themselves (on iOS in particular, where there is no possibility of direct purchases) and there’s no reason to think they won’t do the same with Mac software. As soon as the Mac App Store achieves enough critical mass that they can confidently screw their developers, then the screwing will commence, in earnest.

For example: as Renztsch points out, Smile software has figured out a way around Apple’s policy of only allowing App Store applications to access iCloud:

Apple has decided only Mac App Store apps (and thus now sandboxed apps) can access iCloud. Fortunately this isn’t much of an issue since the smart folks at SmileOnMyMac have already demonstrated a work-around of having a “bridge” Mac App Store application which allows its directly-sold PDFPen to access iCloud as well.

It is indeed a clever solution, but it’s also at the mercy of Apple’s arbitrary and ever-changing store policies. When Apple decides that they don’t like what Smile is doing (as seems likely), then new rules will suddenly appear, prohibiting it.

What’s so insidious about this is that normal people are, for the most part, completely unaware of what’s going on here. Most users will (understandably) gravitate toward what’s easiest, and the Mac App Store is certainly that. Any costs they incur will be opportunity costs — not the things they lose now, but the things that never see the light of day, because of Apple’s gatekeepers.

It’s an ugly situation, and all the incentives (for both developers and users) herd us inexorably to a future inside the brave new world of Apple’s walled garden.

Wrong Target

Digby on the ridiculousness of the Edwards trial:

But I suppose we have to give credit where credit is due. Wall Street gamblers and high flying bankers have so far been smart enough not to do the one thing that can get important, high-profile, white males in trouble with the law: get caught paying for unauthorized sex. Other than that, it’s clear that pretty much anything goes.

It really is shocking how skewed our ethical universe has become. Righteous moral indignation has its uses, but we always direct it at the wrong targets. All these justice department resources used up on a cad and an adulterer, while the malefactors who tried to murder our economy sit unperturbed in their moneyed lairs. It’s like driving a firetruck to the site of a raging housefire and jumping down and pulling out the hoses and then watering the garden nextdoor. Inexplicable.

A Good Day for the Internet

Yesterday was a good day for the internet. Lots and lots and lots of sites either went entirely dark to protest SOPA and Protect-IP, or posted prominent banners explaining why these awful, awful bills would kill the internet as we know it.

A bit of confusion aside, this really got the message out there. Thirteen senators have withdrawn their support for it (including mine!).

As many have said, this is just the beginning. There’s a war looming. But it’s an auspicious beginning.

Of Course SOPA Is a Free Speech Issue

Here’s the AFL-CIO’s Paul Almeida, on why SOPA doesn’t represent a massive and disastrous abridgment of our rights to free speech:

There is no inconsistency between protecting an open Internet and safeguarding intellectual property. Protecting intellectual property is not the same as censorship; the First Amendment does not protect stealing goods off trucks.

This isn’t even wrong: it just takes two unrelated concepts — internet content and theft — and puts them in vague proximity to one another. We’re supposed to hear “stealing” and think oh noes stealing! and then blindly sign on to whatever it takes to make the stealing stop — which, in this case, means making the internet, as we know it, stop.

Because what our current laws do protect (sticking with this demented mixed metaphor for a moment) is the right to drive your truck around even if there’s a chance that it contains stolen goods — or, more to the point, even if someone gets it in his head that it contains stolen goods and asserts as much, without proof. If we were to apply the same standard to truck content as this stupid bill does to website content, then:

  1. The truck could be forced off the road if some jerk with an axe to grind writes a letter to the Trucking Authority saying he suspects it’s carrying contraband. That’s all it would take. No judge, no lawsuit, no cops — just a notice.
  2. The trucking company could be cut off from its payment processors and advertisers — effectively preventing it from doing business — and removed from the yellow pages. Again, without due process.
  3. Furthermore, any third party running an ad for — or otherwise directing customers to — the trucking company would also be breaking the law, and be liable for damages, because of the bill’s “anti-circumvention” clause.
  4. Conversely, if the Trucking Authority — either through an (understandable) excess of caution, or for more nefarious reasons — preemptively does any of this stuff without an actual due-process-free takedown notice, they’d be effectively immune from liability.

And this is to say nothing of the government itself — which, as the silencing of Wikileaks has demonstrated, is more than willing to bring extra-legal pressure to bear in order to silence its critics, even without the express authority to do so.

In short: if this becomes law, we can look forward to media behemoths training their giant howitzers on little guys who post non-infringing content, taking them down without even having to pull the trigger. We can look forward to curated link sites like BoingBoing and Slashdot severely curtailing what they link to, and getting sued out of existence if they’re not careful enough (or even if they are); and sites that depend on user-generated content (like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and MetaFilter) going dark, unless they find a way to severely restrict what people can post.

We can look forward to sites suddenly disappearing from the internet, just like that.

Again: the end of the internet as we know it. An endless vista of possibility reduced to a nightmare of chainlink fences and disappeared websites and everyone always looking over their shoulder, not sure where the next blow is going to come from, or why.

Anybody who tells you this isn’t a free speech issue is either deeply confused about what free speech is or — far more likely — lying. Don’t believe them.


There’s been a bit of of tempest in a teapot recently in the Apple community, around an incident where some poor guy stopped a performance of the New York Philharmonic with an ill-timed iPhone alarm. He’d put the phone on mute, but the iOS alarm app ignores the mute button, so it went off anyway.

Gruber and Marco have both mounted their inevitable defense of the iPhone’s muting behavior — but, uncharacteristically, I actually agree with something Marco said:

The user told the iPhone to make noise by either scheduling an alarm or initiating an obviously noise-playing feature in an app.

The user also told the iPhone to be silent with the switch on the side.

The user has issued conflicting commands, and the iPhone can’t obey both.

It’s a typical design problem: it can’t be heavy and light and big and small. Neither decision will satisfy everyone all the time or cover every edge case: if Apple implemented Mute in Ihnatko’s preferred way, millions of people would be just as irritated when their scheduled alarms didn’t wake them up.

This is hard to quibble with. If you have one mute switch and no ability to tell the alarm what you want it to do in that situation, then, yes, you’re going to piss somebody off.

So Marco makes a good point: under those constraints, there is no right decision. But then he goes on to say that Apple made the right decision:

When implementing the Mute switch, Apple had to decide which of a user’s conflicting commands to obey, and they chose the behavior that they believed would make sense to the most people in the most situations.

That’s good design.

But that’s not good design. That’s just choosing one of two bad designs, on a hunch.

I think this is emblematic of the Apple enthusiast mindset: that it doesn’t even occur to them to expand the scope of the problem beyond the constraints that Apple has imposed. There are other options: you could make the alarm vibrate instead. Or you could present the user with a choice (something that Apple rarely does) — in the alarm app itself, say, or the first time the user puts the phone on mute with alarms active. Or something. But all other options are, apparently off the table: the alarm either must go off or mustn’t go off. Those are your choices.

Most of iOS’s “user-centric” design decisions are predicated on the notion that Apple knows best. But this is a situation where Apple not only doesn’t, but can’t, know best. I’d be a lot less annoyed with Apple zealotry if it would just acknowledge this: not that Apple makes mistakes, but that their uncompromising ethos often forces them into situations where every available option is a mistake.

Prose That Takes Your Breath Away

This is some of the most powerful prose I’ve ever seen. It’s from a leaflet handed around during the 1992 primaries, written by Zoe Leonard, an artist and activist:

I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia. I want a president that had an abortion at sixteen and I want a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two evils and I want a president who lost their last lover to aids, who still sees that in their eyes every time they lay down to rest, who held their lover in their arms and knew they were dying. I want a president with no airconditioning, a president who has stood on line at the clinic, at the dmv, at the welfare office and has been unemployed and layed off and sexually harassed and gaybashed and deported. I want someone who has spent the night in the tombs and had a cross burned on their lawn and survived rape. I want someone who has been in love and been hurt, who respects sex, who has made mistakes and learned from them. I want a Black woman for president. I want someone with bad teeth and an attitude, someone who has eaten that nasty hospital food, someone who crossdresses and has done drugs and been in therapy. I want someone who has committed civil disobedience. And I want to know why this isn’t possible. I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown: always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.

It’s the way this builds, the words tumbling against each other in their eagerness to be heard, swelling off the page, yearning to get to you. As if in their urgency they forget that they’re symbols for a thing and in forgetting become the thing, three-dimensional and real and emphatically present.

I found this breathtaking, in the most literal way possible. I hope I manage to write a paragraph half as good one day.

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