Spook Country

20080630_spookcountry.jpgLast night I finished Spook Country, William Gibson’s most recent novel. Twittered snark aside, it’s actually quite good — probably the best Gibson novel I’ve read, although it’s mostly a do-over of Pattern Recognition, and of course will never be as influential or noteworthy as Neuromancer.

It’s definitely worth a read, I think, if only for the unsettling sensation of being unsure whether Gibson has figured out how to relate to the present or if it’s just that the present has become more compatible with his style. It’s also a book that, when all is revealed, seems well-suited to the particular moment of our 9/11 coping process.

Anyway, I say all of this by way of introducing the following passage (which is spoiler-free, I think, although others might disagree):

“I remember seeing proofs of a CIA interrogation manual, something we’d been sent unofficially, for comment,” the old man said. “The first chapter laid out the ways in which torture is fundamentally counterproductive to intelligence. The argument had nothing to do with ethics, everything to do with quality of product, with not squandering potential assets.” He removed his steel-rimmed glasses. “If the man who keeps returning to question you avoids behaving as if he were your enemy, you begin to lose your sense of who you are. Gradually, in the crisis of self that your captivity becomes, he guides you in your discovery of who you are becoming.”

“Did you interrogate people?” asked Garreth, the black Pelican case under his feet.

“It’s an intimate process,” the old man said. “Entirely about intimacy.” He spread his hand, held it, as if above an invisible flame. “An ordinary cigarette lighter will cause a man to tell you anything, whatever he thinks you want to hear.” He lowered his hand. “And will prevent him ever trusting you again, even slightly. And will confirm him, in his sense of self, as few things will.” He tapped the folded paper. “When I first saw what they were doing, I knew that they’d turned the SERE lessons inside out. That meant we were using techniques the Koreans had specifically developed in order to prepare prisoners for show trials.”

I have no idea if the above is true, but it’s certainly an interesting idea: that, when it comes to torture, black & white bellicosity is a meme capable of self-preservation, rather than just a manifestation of the torturer’s ignorance and imcompetence. Failing to get results, forcing everyone to play their assigned parts with conviction — that’s actually the point.

how I (hope to have) spent my summer vacation

20080630_homebrewing.jpgEmily has already chronicled what was a pretty fantastic Philadelphia weekend. So I’ll just second the Philadelphia Brewing Company tour: it’s free and fascinating, and, as you might imagine, comes with beer. Their Kenzinger is so embarrassingly good that I’m thinking seriously about how to get a case down to DC.

Naturally, though, all the talk about mash tuns and wort got me thinking about giving homebrewing a try. I know, I know: it’s not a money saver. It’ll smell. My beer will be just okay, and my friends will quickly get sick of drinking it. But it sounds fun! And I have a garage, which should help contain the unpleasantness. Besides, at the hipster flea market Emily and I bought this book (rescued from among piles of ironic VHS tapes, ironic video game accessories, and ironic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchanise). So really, what choice do I have?

But I could use some advice, o people of the internet. I’ve assisted a friend with siphoning and bottling before, but that was in the distant past. More recently I had a look at some of these videos and found myself mostly-convinced by the claims associated with the beginner’s kit that they’re pitching. Anybody have any other sage wisdom for me?

Image by Flickr user pusgums (ew), used under a Creative Commons License


Megan asks a question that I can actually answer!

I am very interested to know why Nintendo ramps up these launches so slowly. The Wii has been an astoundingly successful product, but it took over a year for them to get enough to market to get the standard price down to the MSRP. Now the Fit seems to be following the same trend. I would have thought that this was exactly the sort of thing they were trying to avoid–making women feel as if they were running after a children’s toy. On the other hand, if it’s selling at $172, I guess it’s hard to argue with success.

The following comes with the caveat that it’s wisdom received via the collective gaming press, which is perhaps the most craven, despicable quasi-journalistic industry on Earth that is not peripherally culpable for deaths in Iraq (well, unless you count their coverage of America’s Army).

Commenter rlgordonma suggests: “The chips in these units, silly as it seems, are made with the latest and greatest (or next-latest and greatest) 65 nm process.” This affects other consoles, but not the Wii, which uses a conservative chipset that’s generally estimated to have about twice the oomph of the Gamecube console that preceded it. In the gaming industry, that’s not much of an increase.

There are two factors that definitely affect the supply of Wiis and Wii peripherals, and perhaps a third.

The first, most obvious factor is the Wii’s popularity. There’s no question any longer: Nintendo has won this generation of the console wars in a way that nobody anticipated. Cruise ship fleets and retirement homes are buying them; Sony and Microsoft are both readying Wiimote clones. Nintendo’s attempt to open an entirely new market for gaming is working better than anyone anticipated. That effect shouldn’t be underestimated.

But now, twenty months later, why is Nintendo still unable to respond to this demand? The answer may lie with the second factor: Nintendo’s business philosophy. The company is the only game manufacturer unwilling to take a loss on a console — they never have, and, as far as anyone can tell, they never will. Microsoft and Sony both subsidize the price of their boxes in an effort to capture marketshare then make it up on game, service and accessory sales — the exact amount varies as the supply chain shifts and refines, but at times analysts have estimated that the console subsidy is as high as $100/unit. This makes some sense: Sony and Microsoft share a lot of the same titles, and are both competing to have the best graphics in the industry. Becoming the dominant high-end player is important enough to merit a large up-front investment. Nintendo has more exclusive titles, targets a younger audience and has excused itself from the graphics arms race. But a side effect is that the rate at which Nintendo can make Wiis may be constrained by its unwillingness to lose money on each unit.

Finally, the third effect, though speculative, may be real: a lot of folks think Nintendo has limited the scale of their supply chain in order to create scarcity and media attention. Nintendo denies this; I’m not sure what to think about it. It certainly is a bit hard to believe that supplying Wii Fit’s DVD and block of plastic poses the same challenges that the initial console rollout did.

it feels like my nose begins here


Tim, characteristically, has written the most reasonable thing I’ve read during today’s Very Special Gun Control Edition of the internet:

[L]iberals and conservatives both confidently assert that the evidence is incontrovertible that gun control {increases, decreases} crime. I haven’t studied the data closely enough to have a strong opinion one way or the other, and frankly I suspect most of the other people with opinions on the question don’t know what they’re talking about either. But both sides seem able to marshall at least plausible arguments in their favor, which means that while I’m not confident of the sign, I am reasonably sure that the magnitude of the harm (or benefit) is small.

And therefore, as a liberal, my general attitude is that in the absence of compelling evidence of harm we should have a bias toward letting people do as they please. Owning a gun may not, on net, improve your safety, but it’s certainly no more dangerous than smoking, drinking, having unprotected sex, or many other activities that people are free to do in the privacy of their own homes. A lot of liberals seem to have a strange blind spot about this; liberals generally have a strong presumption in favor of letting people do as they please in the privacy of their homes, but that seems to get forgotten when the subject is owning guns.

He’s right: I don’t really know what I’m talking about when it comes to guns’ costs and benefits. Nobody seems to, as Megan explained. Everyone’s just got a hunch — a strongly-held hunch.

Thinking about it some more, I’m actually much more bothered by the idea of people buying firearms for self-defense than for sport. I try to put myself in their shoes: why would someone want to buy a gun? If it’s to hunt or shoot or collect, that seems fine. All that NRA bullshit about instilling a culture of respectful, safety-oriented gun ownership isn’t actually bullshit at all. I’ve seen it myself on NRA-funded ranges at Boy Scout camps. People who know guns know what they’re going to do with their guns, and how to do it, and when they start to do it it isn’t hard for them to get it done.

But when someone buys a gun for protection the situation is more speculative. Avoiding crime isn’t really a hobby, per se. So what are they thinking about? I doubt it has anything to do with statistics. It seems much more likely that a buyer has an imagined scenario in mind — possibly vague but definitely present — that justifies the purchase. I’m sure these scenarios vary quite a lot, but if they have one unifying characteristic I’d bet it’s that they’re all completely ridiculous. Maybe I’m being uncharitable, but I imagine these narratives reflect Batman comics more than they do the realities of being scared, surprised or unskilled. This is the fantasy, the tautological trap that makes me view aspiration as disqualification: the idea that in that crucial moment you are likely to somehow be more than a laughable hairless ape — that somehow it will be helpful to add lethality to a moment of bewilderment — betrays a foolishness that shouldn’t be trusted with a firearm.

In the abstract I don’t begrudge anyone the right to defend themselves. But the experience in that adrenaline-filled moment is so alien and disorienting that it’s a bit hard to take very seriously the cool-headed explication of an aspiring gun owner’s anti-crime calculus. Of the fortunately few times when I’ve felt my life was in danger, the truth uniting the experiences has been that they’ve been nothing like I imagined. Plans would have been hilariously irrelevant.

Besides, to carry a gun for protection from crime means you’ll need to have that device on or near you a lot of the time. You, the girl who spills tampons all over her shoes whenever she roots through her purse. You, the guy who can’t stop dropping his cellphone in the toilet. I know you. You tivo Grey’s Anatomy, for god’s sake. I’m somehow supposed to be happy that your latest personal effect can kill me?

Of course, I don’t mean to say I don’t trust you. If you’re reading this the odds that you’re a friend or loved one are high. But y’know, I was standing only a few feet from a friend-or-loved-one when she accidentally discharged a firearm. This was a smart person! One whom I respect! Somebody that I would gladly hire to do any number of things requiring brains and responsibility and minimal bloodlust. But, y’know, whoops. It was really fucking scary, and I would rather not face that possibility on a daily basis and a city-wide scale. It seems like a bad idea.

Still, Tim’s right. Philosophically, I can’t reconcile this unscientific uneasiness with what I believe about others’ rights. But I also can’t help wondering if those seeking safety couldn’t just try to forget about the inevitably-cited unstoppable PCP-fueled edge case, and instead invest in some pepper spray or a stun gun. Or a whistle. It seems like we might all be better off. But then, that’s just another hunch.

Photo by Flickr user Shermeee

nothing sweet where you hold your gun

Well, the gun ban is over. Unlike a lot of my friends, I’m not particularly enthusiastic about this. Guns are amazing tools, fun to use recreationally and capable of instilling such an awesome sense of power that I don’t think people are very good at rationally considering the questions surrounding them. Certainly that’s been my experience whenever I shoot one — for about six hours immediately thereafter gun ownership seems like a really, really great idea. Woo guns!

I think Yglesias is (sort of) right when he says:

From a policy perspective, what DC [was] trying to accomplish is just futile — as long as the District is a very small patch of land adjacent to Virginia, there’s no way gun regulations of this sort will prevent criminals from acquiring weapons.

This is true, but probably misses the utility of a handgun ban from a police perspective. The ban was an enforcement tool: find some probable cause, search a suspect and if you find a gun they’re an automatic criminal. Handy!

Of course, the MPD used to employ the “no unlicensed bikes” law toward approximately the same ends, which I thought was stupid and unjust. So maybe I’m a hypocrite. On the other hand, suspects with bikes are probably less nefarious, on average, than suspects with guns (recent comment threads notwithstanding).

At any rate, I think Matt is right to imply that this decision will have little effect on the level of gun violence in the city. And the Fenty administration says it’s ready to respond, presumably with laws about triggerlocks and a draconian concealed carry permitting process. If the upshot is that DC residents can keep ready-to-use guns in their homes but not their cars or persons, I’ll be happy enough, I suppose.

Oh! But let me reiterate Charles’ previously-stated rule: no guns in our apartment, please. This includes parties! The knife fights are quite enough already, thanks.

UPDATE: Hmm. That excerpt of the decision quoted at DCist sure makes it sound like the court is calling triggerlock requirements unconstitutional. But hey, I’m no lawyer, and I don’t recall the specifics of DC’s triggerlock law. Hopefully there’s some middle ground to be found, like requiring their use in any household with children.

UPDATE 2: Ryan==smart. I agree completely, with the previously-expressed caveat to his second point.

people who understand rock and roll

stay_positive.pngThe only thing I feel like writing about at the moment is how much it stinks to be sick and how much I’d rather be on my couch assassinating people in the virtual Holy Land. So instead, two brief pieces of internet advice as you seek worthwhile content elsewhere:

  1. Update your RSS reader! Spencer has a new home and a badass header. Don’t let the weird teaser view (which begins after the third entry) bamboozle you into missing this post, which I especially liked, and which also gives me a good excuse to link to DCeiver’s currently-running presidential ipod experiment.
  2. Whatever you do, don’t pay any attention to Stereogum’s review of the new Hold Steady (now available on iTunes thanks to the record company panicking over the leak). I admit I was slow on the uptake — it’s much better than I initially thought it was, largely due to the band deciding to stick its best stuff in the album’s second half.

    But I didn’t get it as exactly backward as Stereogum does: “Sequestered in Memphis” is actually one of the album’s weakest songs; “One for the Cutters” is probably the best, newest thing on the album; and “Constructive Summer” is fun and catchy but completely incidental. He’s right about “Navy Sheets”, though: it really is bad.

    Anyway, a much better take can be found at Tiny Mixtapes. The only thing I’d add: neither review talks about the title track, which is understandable in that it only sort-of works on the record, but also too bad in that the anthemic, wistful “Stay Positive” seems poised to be an incredibly great song to hear live — something I intend to do as soon as I can.

about enough of this crap

Christ: another one. Why is it that any time someone points out that despite bicycling being a clean and cheap mode of transportation our cities make it much more dangerous and difficult than it ought to be, the first reaction is always, ALWAYS for people to exclaim: “But sometimes bicyclists run stop signs or ride on sidewalks!”

I’m really trying to keep this short, so I’ll just say: speaking for cyclists everywhere, out A-#1 top priority is not getting killed by automobiles. I’m sorry that this edges out “not startling those not on bikes” and “not inconveniencing those driving”, but it does. The stakes are just a wee bit higher, is the thing. We’re riding to get away from cars, to get seen by cars, and to avoid winding up under cars. If you don’t ride a bike you don’t understand, and you certainly have no right to make assumptions about the correctness of typical cyclist behavior based on your occasional prudish outrage at the antics of a few reckless downtown couriers.

Someday I hope we’ll all be able to live in peace and harmony. But as someone who’s employed all three modes of transportation, take it from me: right now irresponsible or dim-witted drivers put cyclists in danger much more frequently and to a greater degree than cyclists endanger walkers and drivers. Please try to apportion your outrage accordingly.