Wednesday, October 31, 2001

"Hello, This is the Government, We're Not In Right Now..."

I keep finding things. Interactive Week reported back on 9-17 that if you were looking for official information in the immediate aftermath of September 11, well, you didn't find any.

And the FBI wants to set up a handful of nodes through which all internet traffic will flow, making it easier to perform surveillance. Well, that should effectively solve the "problem" of how smoothly the 'net worked after the destruction of so much of its infrastructure in lower Manhattan.

Look, J. Edgar, the whole idea of the internet is that it is decentralized, making it virtually invulnerable to attack. E-mail was about the only thing that did work in New York for those few days in mid-September. Do you really want to fool with that?

Who's on First?

Again, I hope to avoid the temptation to turn this blog into a string of links to other places, but this comment from made me laugh out loud.

High? We Couldn't Get Much Higher: Late yesterday afternoon Attorney General Ashcroft alerted us to an alert that our high alert has just been made higher. We are now more alert than we were before we were on high alert. We are now highly alerted to the fact that we are on high alert. Hopefully, someone will soon explain what we have been alerted to. In the meantime, Gov. George Pataki has said our patrolling National Guardsman can carry guns. This, sounds sound. And alert. Some feel being so highly alert makes them want to get high and perhaps a little less alert.

Sunday, October 28, 2001

“The day we lose Custard the Clown, Betty, we’ve lost the war.”

Some of you may recall “Remember WENN”, a charming comedy series created by Rupert Holmes that ran for four years on AMC back when AMC was worth watching. Set in the late thirties and early forties, it chronicled the activities of the actors, writers and managers of a local radio station. (Say, AMC, whatever happened to “Remember WENN”?)

The final episode, which now seems prophetic, concerned the cast’s reaction to the news of the Pearl Harbor attack (mentioned at the end of the previous episode). Betty Roberts, the station’s head (and only) writer, felt that the regular schedule of comedies, dramas, and music would seem, well, trivial in light of current events. "I mean, war's no laughing matter," she told the station manager, Victor Comstock. So, she suspended them all in mid-plot and went to an all-news and analysis format.

Victor set her straight:

What do you think this country is fighting for, hm? Life. Liberty. And the right to do silly radio programs.

...The reason we are in this thing is so that men and women of every race and creed can come home after a hard day's work and take a beer out of the icebox and sit in their underwear listening to Rance Shiloh, US Marshall.

The day we lose Custard the Clown, Betty, we've lost the war.

This may be the most patriotic thing I’ve ever heard.

(Thanks to Linda Young for the transcription, which I've edited.)

Talking to Hear Myself Talk

When I decided to attempt a weblog, I determined that I wasn't going to say anything unless I had something original to say. That's why I only update this thing every few days: Much of what I would have said has already been said, faster and better than I could have said it.

If I were talking just to hear myself talk, I would talk to my kids like everybody else does. :) And the planet really doesn't need one more collection of links to other sources.

But every now and again I stumble onto something that I think you should see.

L. Brent Bozell III, for instance, whose column is available both at and, offers this gem:

CNN offers to grant time to bin Laden, yet finds that there are some people who are so evil and misguided that they cannot be allowed a platform on CNN – for example, opponents of the global warming theory.

And Bill O'Reilly, who has a visible enough soapbox on Fox News, is currently on a story I'd like to see a speedy resolution to:

Here's an interesting ethical question. Say you're a celebrity, and you agree to do a benefit for the families of the victims of the terror attack. You go on television and ask your fellow Americans to donate money. And they respond. Hundreds of millions of dollars have poured in from the TV telethon and the concerts. You feel good that various charities are flush with donated cash partly generated by you. And of course you benefited from the public seeing you in an altruistic situation.

But then a logjam occurs. And the donated money does not get to the families very quickly. In fact, six weeks after the attack, less than 10 percent of the $1.4 billion pledged to help those grieving families has actually been distributed. Some families have received no donations at all. So what do you, the celebrity, do? What is your responsibility in this situation?

...Well, maybe you should go on television and ask some direct questions.

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Democracy on the Web

Shortly after I first set up my own web page, back in February 1996, I said this (only slightly edited to update cultural/political references and URLs):

The World Wide Web reminds me of an old Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney musical. "I've got a PC!" "Great, I've got a modem!" "And Uncle AOL has a couple of megabytes of disk space to spare. Let's put on a show!"

I mean, think about this. For a few hundred dollars' worth of computer parts (and you don't even have to own the computer!) and a few dollars a month paid to a service provider, I can reach the world. I'm writing these words in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Where are you?

You downloaded these words from a file server. Where exactly that server is, I have no idea, nor do I need to know, nor do you. You may be seeing them minutes or hours after I write them. All you have to know is the phrase, and they're all yours. I'm not Dan Rather or George W. Bush, that you should have such timely access to what I say. I'm just a person--no more, no less.

The point is, we exist (I, as I write this, and you, as you read) in a community that could not have existed when we were born. We are not particularly exceptional people, as people go: Yet we share a global forum in which exchanging thoughts with someone on the other side of the planet is no more difficult than ordering out for pizza. (Which, come to think of it, can also be done on the Web in some cities.)

Microsoft has a web site. So do I. Except for the fact that they have a ton of software available for downloading, it's not immediately apparent that they put far more money into their web presence than I put into mine. That's democracy. There's no real difference between their site and mine. Mine is just as "real" as theirs is, whatever that means on the Web.

What we have here is a medium that can sweep across cultural and economic lines like no other medium before it. The average individual can't afford to own a television station, or a radio station, or a newspaper, or a magazine, or anything that can be described as a mass medium. (Feature films have been financed with personal credit cards, but only in unusual cases.) Yet here I am, gently tossing my thoughts into the ether, where they are paradoxically as close as my fingertip and as far away as Moscow, Tokyo, and Sydney.

Or Washington, D.C.

Certainly, anybody who has taken any traditional route to Power (political or financial) has to be intimidated by the Internet, the planet's first and largest functioning libertarian society. Certainly, white racists and black affirmative action activists are united in their distrust of a culture in which people really are judged by the content of their minds and not the color of their skins. And people (or organizations) with money are discovering that there is nothing about having money that makes one better able to create HTML code.

The value of a Web page is in the thoughts and ideas it expresses. Imagine that.

Now, I bring it up again to mention a couple of other things, possibly symptomatic of a sea change.

First, something that happened here in the Atlanta area: A couple of weeks ago, some pilot in a private plane thought it would be funny to buzz the Fayette county fair. The FAA got right to work, based on a partial registration number from the plane's tail and a rough description of the type of plane, and within 24 hours or so, had narrowed the suspect plane list down to about 3000 planes. Major Bruce Jordan of the Fayette County Sheriff's Department told them thanks, but local talk show host (and aircraft owner and aficionado) Neal Boortz, with a few minutes' search of public records posted on the internet, had already narrowed the list down to 16.

Yeah, they got their man. An employee at a local flight school.

Second, remember those parts from the helicopter the Taliban are so proudly claiming to have shot down (but refusing to show anyone the rest of the wreckage). CNN was more than happy to cover the Taliban in their moment of triumph -- without asking the kind of questions that come naturally to the readers at After "three minutes" of research on the internet, Erik Riker-Coleman was able to narrow it down to two possibilities, the Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight or CH-47 Chinook. The Pentagon later confirmed that the parts were from a Chinook, which lost a front landing gear on touchdown in Afghanistan, but which was able to take off at the conclusion of the mission and return to Pakistan, with crew intact. (But I heard about that from, not CNN.)

Had CNN had the wit to do the same research, they might have been able to ask the Taliban representatives some embarrassing questions. But then, they could always have asked the Army if they were missing a helicopter, and they didn't do that either.

(Or maybe they did, and maybe the Army knows whose side CNN is on. But that isn't really my point here.)

Do employees of CNN and the FAA not have access to the internet? Or are they forbidden to use it, as in so many workplaces?

Or are they too busy playing Bejeweled or downloading porn to pay attention?

The internet is an intensely powerful tool, and I'm glad it's in everybody's hands, not just those of the Rich and Powerful -- since it's obvious that the Rich and Powerful sometimes don't have a clue.

Saturday, October 20, 2001


USN Captain Frank L. Culbertson was onboard the space station on September 11 (and, I believe, still is). He could see the smoke of the World Trade Center quite well from his vantage point. You can read his thoughts at

Friday, October 19, 2001

Have Patience

In today's Wall Street Journal "Opinion Journal", Peggy Noonan presents an saddening essay. I won't repeat it here: If you're not reading Ms Noonan regularly, you should be.

But I will explore one question that comes to mind: How wary should we be?

In the aftermath of the events of September 11th, there remain unknown numbers of cells still active in this country. Apparently there are also some caches of low-grade anthrax, not deadly enough for a bold stroke, but enough to annoy, to distract, to foment fear and distrust.

My first reaction was that if this is an attack, it's an inept one. Now I'm not so sure. With only a handful of well-placed envelopes, someone has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of high alert. With one, count 'em, one fatality, and a handful of cases responding well to antibiotics, our adversary has caused us to stop and question every spill of talcum powder and coffee creamer on the east coast.

Did they know that would happen? Are we being nibbled to death by baby ducks? Are they laughing at us while they ready the real other shoe?

I'm inclined to think I'm giving them too much credit. They're not that clever. If the public statements from the Taliban and bin Laden are any indication, they really don't understand us well enough to have planned that kind of campaign.

But in the back of my head there is a nagging shadow of a doubt.

There's another component to the question with which I began this comment, one that Ms Noonan addresses more directly.

Before 9-11, if you met someone strolling down your street that you didn't know, it meant nothing. "Tourist", you might say, and move on. Now you wonder. Especially if the "tourist" is differently-complected than yourself, most especially if he "looks Middle-Eastern", you wonder.

This is "profiling", and that word was in real danger of becoming the 21st century buzzword for "racism" -- until now.

Now, I think, we understand (and if we don't, we had better come to understand it pronto) that profiling is not necessarily a bad thing. It's standard procedure for any crime investigator: You build a profile of the perpetrator, so you can go where he's likely to be and see if you see him. You have to start somewhere, duh.

Yeah, sure, you say. You only say that because you're white. You don't know, man, you don't know.

Well, it's true that I am white. And I'm male, which (say some) is another strike against me. And I'm middle-aged. (Yer out!) I'm even Southern. And straight. (Five for five! Bingo!)

The irony of anyone deducing from this information that I am incapable of understanding what it's like to be "profiled" -- well, it's rude to laugh, but I can't help it.

I'm profiled every darned day. And it is Incorrect for me to resist being profiled. But that's okay, because I know I'm not guilty of anything. It's contingent upon me to prove, by my words and by my actions, that I don't fit the profile. That other people who resemble me in some way are not me, and do not speak for me.

Be combative, and you get combat. Be courteous, and you get courtesy. Usually.

Thursday, October 18, 2001

Solution Unsatisfactory

Robert A. Heinlein wrote “Solution Unsatisfactory” in early 1941. Europe was at war: The United States was not yet involved directly, and our people were sharply divided. Some said America could not afford to become embroiled in someone else’s war: Some said we dared not ignore it.

A few months later, the Japanese attacked a remote American naval base in Hawaii – and the world changed.

A few years later, the United States became the first, and so far only, country to use an atomic weapon in war. And the conversations that Heinlein began in this story continue to this day.

ARTC adapted “Solution Unsatisfactory” for audio in spring, 2001. We first performed it before an audience on Friday, August 31. We scheduled studio time for September 12 to record voice tracks.

The day before our scheduled studio session, three hijacked commercial airliners slammed into three heavily populated buildings in New York and Washington – and the world changed again.

We considered canceling our voice session, which suddenly seemed so unimportant – but we would never have a better chance to capture the confusion, shock, grief, and grim determination of the day. Events had outrun us, but the story remained as fresh as tomorrow’s headlines. It seemed to demand that we tell it, again.

So we stood in the studio, our characters debating the practicality of suspending all commercial air travel – while, above us, the late summer sky was empty.

Where did we ever get the idea that science fiction is escapist literature?

This production is dedicated to the memory of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, the fourth hijacked airliner, who voted that whatever the personal cost, that flight would not become an instrument of terror. Instead, it has become a symbol of the indomitable American spirit.

You don’t get to choose how to die. You can only choose how to live. Those passengers chose life for additional hundreds, possibly thousands, of people they would never know. There can be no greater gift.

I think – I know! – Mr Heinlein would agree.

I wish you well, and I hope your loved ones are all accounted for.

Monday, October 15, 2001


Welcome to a new medium. I've no idea what I'll say, but I'll comment on things that interest me. Perhaps they will interest you, too.