Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The "We didn't know" defense

The New York Times outlines how the members of the Bush Administration (and Congress) who advocated for and approved the torturing of prisoners in its custody had no fucking clue what they were agreeing to.
According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans.

Even George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director who insisted that the agency had thoroughly researched its proposal and pressed it on other officials, did not examine the history of the most shocking method, the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding.

The top officials he briefed did not learn that waterboarding had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II and was a well-documented favorite of despotic governments since the Spanish Inquisition; one waterboard used under Pol Pot was even on display at the genocide museum in Cambodia.

They did not know that some veteran trainers from the SERE program itself had warned in internal memorandums that, morality aside, the methods were ineffective. Nor were most of the officials aware that the former military psychologist who played a central role in persuading C.I.A. officials to use the harsh methods had never conducted a real interrogation, or that the Justice Department lawyer most responsible for declaring the methods legal had idiosyncratic ideas that even the Bush Justice Department would later renounce.

The process was "a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm," a former C.I.A. official said.
This is why the rule of law matters. Because sometimes those in power lack the competence required to be put in charge of life-and-death decisions.

I am sick with disgust.

Read the entire story.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Twitter: You're Doing It Wrong

Joined Twitter, but still don't get it? Perhaps these tips may help.

1. You do not need to follow celebrities.

Most celebrities on Twitter are dull. The fact that they have tens or hundreds of thousands of people following them does not make them any less boring. In fact it suggests to them that Twitter users are all too happy to read the lamest details of their celebrity life.

Now if you enjoy celebrity-watching, and feel a thrill knowing that Ashton Kutcher and P. Diddy are together on Larry King RIGHT NOW, or if it is your dream to get a 140-character answer to your question from John Cleese, go right ahead.

2. You do not need to receive breaking news

It can feel exciting to learn about an earthquake, or a plane crash, or a daring sea rescue minutes (or even hours) before the news shows up on nytimes.com. But unless there's something you can do about it, breaking news doesn't have much actual value to your life.

Alternately, you might want to be the person who turns around and shares the breaking news with others. In which case: sure, become the news desk.

(Note also that people who receive breaking news via Twitter are advised not to crack jokes about said breaking news in the real world, as no one will know what the hell you are talking about until they hear about it the next day on Morning Edition.)

3. You do not need to follow your friends

Unless you and your friends-in-real-life use Twitter to meet up at a conference or on a night of bar-hopping, you do not need to follow your friends' Twitter feeds to keep up with their lives. That is what Facebook is for.

Most of the people I follow (and who now follow me) I don't know in real life. Or, I didn't before Twitter.

4. It is okay to prune your list of people you follow

If someone you're following isn't posting tweets that are interesting, useful, or funny, feel free to stop following them. They might be funny and interesting and lovely in real life, but on Twitter their random mutterings are only so much noise.

5. There is no harm in trying

Find new people to follow by seeing who your favorite Twitterers follow. Funny Twitterers may also have a list of "Favorites", which may point you to other funny Twitterers. There's no cost to follow someone on a trial basis. If, after a week (or in some cases a day) you decide that the person's tweets aren't interesting, useful, or funny, you can prune them off your list.

6. Write tweets that are interesting, useful, or funny

Every time you type in the box and click "update", it's like you're stepping up to a microphone to make a brief statement. Make it worth everybody's time.

Smart people have two Twitter accounts: one personal, one professional. That way you can be interesting or useful about your job to one audience, and interesting or funny about your kids to another.

Me, I just try to be funny, regardless of topic. Which leads me to jokes at the intersection of HTML programming and bluegrass.

Perhaps I'm the one who's doing it wrong.

7. Someone has probably gotten to that joke before you

If you care about these things, there's search.twitter.com.

Tell me what I'm doing wrong below.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The unlikeliness of Susan Boyle

My mom sent me this seven minute YouTube clip (embedding disabled) from last Saturday's "Britain's Got Talent" broadcast. If you haven't seen it I'd encourage you to give it a look rather than read my half-formed yammers about it.

I hate these shows. And while I am not a fan of the reality show in general*, by "these shows" I mean specifically the reality (and celebrity-reality) talent show. I hate the cruelty, the commerciality, the artifice, and the garish expressions of the lowest common denomination of taste. Oh and how I hate the padding.

But I cannot deny these shows' appeal. Which finds somewhat of an apotheosis in these seven minutes.

There is still much to be cynical about here: the bassoon underscore playing up the awkwardness of the contestant, the maudlin praise, the underlying condescension of the format. But as much as I wanted to dismiss this, or deconstruct it, there is something undeniably genuine and awesome in this moment.

Because despite all of the forgettable hours of ridiculous costumes, hairstyles, and product placements what everyone involved--the producers, the judges, the audience--most wants, deep down, is to witness is a nobody stepping out on the stage and coming back a star.

See it for yourself.


*Excepting Top Chef, The Amazing Race, and for a while I was able to enjoy Survivor.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Baraknophobia

Jon Stewart explains what being in the minority really feels like.