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Nailgate: A Rhapsody in Pink Roundup

April 18th, 2011 No comments

I’m a little bit late to the nail-painting party on this one, but it’s just so much fun to be pretty that I really can’t help myself. Just in case you missed it:

Last week, Fox News manufactured a controversy on Monday the 11th to punish J. Crew for gracing a newsletter with a photo showing J. Crew president and creative director Jenna Lyons painting her son’s toenails pink. As Jon Stewart would later observe, this was clearly intended to be a fun bonding moment between mother and son. But Fox’s columnist Keith Ablow, MD saw it — no, I’m not kidding — as a “clear attack on masculinity.” Abelow claimed young Mr. Lyons’s pink nail polish just goes to show what happens when you let the whippersnappers social-network and stuff. Said Ablow:

 

In our technology-driven world—fueled by Facebook, split-second Prozac prescriptions and lots of other assaults on genuine emotion and genuine relationships and actual consequences for behavior—almost nothing is now honored as real and true.

Ablow, incidentally, is a psychiatrist — so he knows all about the genuine emotion and genuine relationships, I’m sure, not to mention the Prozac prescriptions. Ablow further claimed it’s attitudes like this that are to blame for rampant teen sex, girls dressing slutty, and…um…guys doing crunches, I guess. And a bunch of other stuff, like the imminent end of war: Read more…

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Oh, Also, They Found Atlantis

March 17th, 2011 No comments

Image from World-Mysteries.com.

While I was busy watching the silly frog waving the zirconium-clad fuel rods, they found Atlantis. Just goes to show you. Get distracted for one damn minute in this neighborhood, next thing you know the leprechauns have stripped off your hubcaps and stuck bananas in your tailpipe, if you know what I mean.

Reuters published a story on the 12th that some cat discovered Atlantis, apparently getting a jump on April Fool’s Day (when the gags are sure to be extra-unfunny this year.)

Here’s what Reuters said on March 12th — when “tsunami” was a buzzword, just days after the largest earthquake in Japanese history devastated the islands with one of ‘em:

A U.S.-led research team may have finally located the lost city of Atlantis, the legendary metropolis believed swamped by a tsunami thousands of years ago in mud flats in southern Spain.

“This is the power of tsunamis,” head researcher Richard Freund told Reuters.

“It is just so hard to understand that it can wipe out 60 miles inland, and that’s pretty much what we’re talking about,” said Freund, a University of Hartford, Connecticut, professor who lead an international team searching for the true site of Atlantis.

[Link.]

Ex-WTF-ing-squeeze-the-WTF-out-of-um, what did they say? “The legendary metropolis believed swamped by a tsunami thousands of years ago in mud flats in southern Spain”???? I”m sorry, is that the same Atlantis that was the 13th colony in the empire that formed a power grid that encompassed the Earth? Or the Atlantis founded by the Neanderthals? Or the Atlantis for which esoteric writers over the years, like Edgar Cayce and Madame Helena Blavatsky, have come up with dozens if not hundreds of location hypotheses? The Atlantis off of Spain discovered in 2004 that is the origin of the very same satellite photo used in the original Reuters story? Or the one Plato made up?

Was that Reuters that claimed that? Was that a scientist who said he found Atlantis? Was that a University that he is affiliated with? Oh, well, then. As long as he’s a scientist.

The claim is made as part of a National Geographic show called “Finding Atlantis,” but it takes Reuters until the eighth paragraph to get around to that.

What’s more, I’d like to assert that my skepticism toward the existence of Atlantis is not the issue here. The issue is my respect for the searchers in esoteric traditions, even if, God love ‘em, they’re mostly a bunch of, er, shall we say “divergent thinkers.” That’s the power of human myth and speculation; it is the fuel that drives our dreams. Reducing a single Atlantis hypothesis to a soundbite like this reduces mythology, dream, aspiration and legend not to pseudoscience but to a press release.

“The legendary metropolis believed swamped by a tsunami thousands of years ago in mud flats in southern Spain” is sort of a gross oversimplification of the many years of hypothesis, theory and speculation over whether Atlantis ever existed and, if so, where it existed and what it might have looked like. As many books have been written on this as on almost any other paranormal or esoteric topic. And now, in the lead of a Reuters article, suddenly it’s “the legendary metropolis believed swamped by a tsunami thousands of years ago in mud flats in southern Spain”???

It gets even more obfuscating, due to what I can only believe is an utterly credulous newswriter they don’t let Wiki anything:

To solve the age-old mystery, the team used a satellite photo of a suspected submerged city to find the site just north of Cadiz, Spain. There, buried in the vast marshlands of the Dona Ana Park, they believe that they pinpointed the ancient, multi-ringed dominion known as Atlantis.

The team of archeologists and geologists in 2009 and 2010 used a combination of deep-ground radar, digital mapping, and underwater technology to survey the site.

Freund’s discovery in central Spain of a strange series of “memorial cities,” built in Atlantis’ image by its refugees after the city’s likely destruction by a tsunami, gave researchers added proof and confidence, he said.

Atlantis residents who did not perish in the tsunami fled inland and built new cities there, he added.

Um, wow. Who knew it was that simple? At the VERY end of the piece, we get the following clarification:

Debate about whether Atlantis truly existed has lasted for thousands of years. Plato’s “dialogues” from around 360 B.C. are the only known historical sources of information about the iconic city. Plato said the island he called Atlantis “in a single day and night… disappeared into the depths of the sea.”

Sadly, even this clarification, which should be like shooting fish in a barrel for someone who presumably went to journalism school or at least didn’t spend his entire childhood hitting himself on the head with a mallet, manages to be utter bullshit.

Plato’s Dialogues are historical sources in the same sense that Shakespeare’s plays are. They may contain critical historical data, but does that mean their account of Atlantis is historical fact? In order to argue that, you would have to engage in a terrifyingly vague re-definition of history, which plenty of esoteric writers and today’s UFO conspiracy fans are more than willing to do, of course. But they don’t (usually) claim to work for Reuters. (Sometimes the CIA, but rarely Reuters).

And even the most wide-eyed UFO nut sometimes does a better job of presenting evidence as evidence, hypothesis as hypothesis, and speculation as speculation as Reuters has here, in what used to be called a hard news story.

Here at Techyum, where we never met an imaginary friend we didn’t like, I should not be in the position of telling Reuters, “That’s what we like about you, Mulder. Your ideas are even weirder than ours.”

People! Get a grip!!!! You’re Reuters!!! GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER!!!!

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Bath Salts: The New Drug Menace

February 11th, 2011 1 comment

Public domain image by C6451, from Wikipedia.

It’s official. Putting a Google Alert on “Designer Drugs” gets you way more salacious news hits than “lighter than air travel commercial applications.”

Furthermore, sometimes the local news just hands you a headline. Take “Bath Salts, The New Drug Menace.” It’s not April 1 yet, so it appears to be real. If I could make this stuff up, I’d be Donald P. Bellisario.

Scranton, Pennsylvania’s WNEP-16 has an article about a new “designer drug” being sold legally in their area:

For $40 a spoonful, some area stores peddle what some call a designer drug marketed as bath salts. A man who recently used them to get high knows the name is misleading.

“I doubt anybody took a bath in it,” said the man, who wants to be known as “Kenny,” which is not his real name. He is a recovering heroin addict who claims he was clean for two years. Then he snorted bath salts.

Owch! But wait, it gets better:

It is packaged as Vanilla Sky, Ivory Wave, Blue Silk,and Tranquility.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency claims chemists designed the bath salt substance “MDPV” to mimic the highs of cocaine and meth.

“Kenny” said he knows at least 20 people who use it.

[Link.]

Is it a coincidence that the pseudonym chosen for WNEP’s informant is the name of the guy who got so high on cat pee he got picked up by a chick with improbable hair, driving a flying Trans-Am?

But wait. This is no laughing matter. Kenny’s nightmare just gets worse and worse!

“I’m scared that I’m going back into addiction,” said “Kenny.” He added he recently came down after a bath salt high and felt suicidal. As a father, he fears he will lose his children, his wife, perhaps his life with one more slip up. When asked how hard is it going to be to avoid bath salts, he responded, “It’s going to be extremely hard. It’s not going to be possible.”

…Earlier this week a bill written to make synthetic marijuana illegal in Pennsylvania was amended to include bath salts.

The city of Scranton is not waiting. Mayor Chris Doherty is drafting legislation to make the sale and possession of bath salts illegal in the city limits.

[Link.]

Obviously, Mayor Doherty needs to read his Constitution.

Doesn’t he to realize that when bath salts are outlawed, only outlaws will have bath salts? Does he want us to go back to using Mr. Bubble? If we did that, how would we law-abiding citizens supposed to cling to our guns and our God long enough to riddle crazed, bath-salts-snorting muggers with hollow-points? How the hell are we supposed to hold on to a fowling piece without the softer, younger-looking skin bath salts can help us achieve?

In case you don’t know it, Erowid.com is the place to go for information on recreational drugs. It’s far more reliable than this dude Mike you know who wants you to smoke banana peels. It’s the bible for all things that involve stories about watching your hand go whub-whub-whub in front of your face for six hours while your girlfriend makes out with a lava lamp and this weird chick named Sharon from Fresno pours half & half on your malt balls from last Halloween and eats them like cereal while this other guy Thad keeps trying to pick up on her but it turns out he’s actually been talking to a life-sized Crusty The Clown blow-up doll and only thought it was Sharon because he can’t take his sunglasses off or his eyes will pop out of his head.

Here’s what Erowid has to say about MDPV:

MDPV is an uncommon stimulant with a short history of human use. It is known for its tendency to cause compulsive redosing and some users report sexual arousal as an effect.

Not too extensive, eh? They do also have a link to a 2008 abstract that, if you’re, like, an organic chemist, might make some kind of sense to you (it sure as hell doesn’t to me). The second abstract, from 2010, is from the UK and is far more instructive. There’s somewhat more concise scientific information about the drug at Wikipedia.

But as with everything on Erowid, the truly fucked-up weirdness starts when you hear from the users. For example, this guy relates his adventures with a refried-bean-smeared drug orgy on MDPV:

00:00 – I snorted 4 mg of the MDPV, not independently tested for purity, but acquired through a trusted source. Then, I went about my business preparing a dish of Chiles Rellenos with refried beans for a dinner I planned to enjoy fully with my girlfriend, and a batch of home-made granola to take to a post-party breakfast with research associates on the weekend. The snow-white powder was sticky and difficult to cut, and kept sticking to the blade … insufflation yielded little to no burn to the nose.

The come on was slower than expected, and subtle, and didn’t fully develop until about the half hour point. I felt a mild euphoria, lightness in the head, and a bit speedy, but in a good way, wanting to get things done, rather than jittery and jumpy. Not a lot of feelings throughout the body, but rather in the head. Generally I was pleased, but unimpressed by the 45 minute point, so I measured up another 4 mg, and snorted it with glee and determination as I took a short break from measuring ingredients for my granola.

01:00 – The effects are getting more pronounced, but not much has changed in terms of overall effects. Still a pleasant euphoria, but nothing worth getting too excited about. I find myself well able to continue on with my cooking, but occasionally find myself stopping to focus on the Eddie Vedder CD playing in the background. I can stay very focused on any given thing, but not necessarily many things at once. It is Eddie Vedder, or the Granola, but clearly not both.

01:00 – The refried beans are simmering on the stove and filling the air in my home with a pleasant aroma of basil, thyme, and of course, beans. Not exactly traditional Mexican, but I assure you … they’re good. I take a break from cooking to craft some necessary emails to friends regarding the coming weekend, and type some of this report. My creative writing skills are definitely enhanced, and I am sincerely enjoying the process of recording my thoughts to virtual paper. This is a good study aid perhaps, beneficial to writing research papers … or murder mysteries, or sci-fi novels … or rallying cries against our out-of-control government.

01:30 – No doubt, both doses are now fully developed, and have been so for several minutes. Apart from the effects being somewhat stronger than before, the experience is still rather mild. I am however, finding myself motivated to get things done. We’re not talking about organizing my sock drawer or anything, but certainly more motivated to cook rather than sit on the couch.

[Link.]

It’s certainly easy to understand why drugs are so hard to kick; I mean, who can give up that kind of glamorous lifestyle?

On the other hand, this unfortunate gent had paranoid delusions on MDPV, after taking rather a lot of it. This person found it wickedly addictive. This one had “An Adventure in Euphoria and Tachycardia.” (Tachycardia is a rapid heart rate). You can also find out all about what false-positives MDPV does or does not cause on drug tests.

Erowid’s documentation of MDPV isn’t extensive — there’s a total of 17 trip reports, which is tiny compared to some of the other drugs represented there. But it’s one of the only places to get first-hand information about the drug without making the insides of your own nostrils silky-smooth.

Guccione’s Smut-by-Mail Past, Alleged Mob Connections

January 18th, 2011 No comments

The official story on Penthouse founder Bob Guccione has always been that he entered the porn business in 1964 with the launch of Penthouse, which would go on to become the slutty rival of “nice girl” Playboy, serving as the #2 nudie mag in the country for a number of years before, in the ’80s, overtaking Playboy.

But according to Talking Points Memo‘s article today based on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for Guccione’s FBI file. It seems our man Bob engaged in the charmingly 1950s occupation of selling nudie pics by mail, based on a personal letter he wrote to potential customers, signing it as “Robert Gucci.” The bargain price? Just $2 for 10 photos.

Back in 1956, when he first came to the FBI’s attention, this was called “sending obscene photographs through the mail,” and the FBI dropped the investigation when Guccione’s company went out of business. But the really fascinating thing is Guccione’s “marketing message” in the “personal” letters.

Talking Points Memo has a scanned copy of the letter, and it’s utterly fascinating. In it, Guccione, who started out as a painter, describes how his appreciation for the female form reached the kind of fascination that just, um…couldn’t be copied by a painter. He said this:

I began to compare the effort that my hands had made with the living image of the girl before me. I saw the pink, fleshy tones, the bronze and the umber with which nature had burnished her skin; I saw the full, ripened breast, the eloquent face, the proud, sculptured turn of the hip; I saw the eyes and the mouth and the vivid expression of youth; I saw the complete and perfect form of life and I knew that here was the original and the real masterpiece and that my own was but the poorest copy.

[Link.]

To anyone who’s ever read copy from the “collector’s market” from those years, this is classic doublespeak for “These girls are naked!” but it carries such a retro charm that it makes me wax nostalgic. Ah, the fifties…a more innocent time, before any mother in America had to face the horrible news that her son was the marketing guy who invented the term “ball snot.”

More important to the FBI in later years, however, were their investigations into Guccione’s reputed Mob connections, which were many and varied. He tried to open a casino in Atlantic City in the eighties, but was foiled by an investigation into his connections to organized crime.

Later FBI investigations involved a Reagan-appointed Congressional investigator (whose name was redacted), and an investigation into whether Guccione knowingly allowed Penthouse to hire underage models.

One thing he certainly did was sell an issue of Penthouse with a 16-year-old Traci Lords as a centerfold — but Penthouse was certainly not alone in being duped by Lords. TPM points out that the Lords incident and Guccione’s refusal to cooperate with the FBI when he published the Unabomber’s famous letter in Penthouse are — curiously — missing from the file.

It’s a long article, and damn good reading. It came to me via Susie Bright, whose post on her memories of Guccione (and observations about the Penthouse empire and its place in publishing in general) also makes damn good reading.

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New Huck Finn Edition Eliminates “That Word”

January 7th, 2011 No comments

A new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn edits out the N-word, which I hereby, in protest, refuse to type because it skeeves me to think that I’ll catch Twell like Roger Ebert. (Also, women enjoy sex. I’m just saying.)

I do appreciate the anger most African Americans feel upon hearing the word uttered (or Tweeted) by a white man. And after all, Twain was white. But, just speaking for myself, I read the book at a young age. It was a significant part of getting me to understand at least in part how fucked up things were for African Americans in the South. It armed me against all the contemporary white protestations that too much is made of racism. Huckleberry Finn gave me a context for history.

Keith Staciewicz of Entertainment Weekly is non-committal on the subject, stating:

…if this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. It’s unfortunate, but is it really any more catastrophic than a TBS-friendly re-edit of The Godfather, you down-and-dirty melon farmer?

Leave it to that bastion of non-committal culture, Entertainment Weekly to equate the alteration of historical texts for political correctness with the TV edit of The Godfather, which to my mind is possibly the most insultingly ludicrous comparison I’ve ever heard. For the record, I think they’re both jack-assed gestures, but they’re not the same thing.

It misses the point to argue that removing something like “fucking motherfucker” from the TV broadcast of a film and removing the N-word from Huckleberry Finn are even remotely in the same context. Were “fucking motherfuckers,” as some characters in some films choose to call some other characters for generally story-driven reasons, systematically discriminated against, kidnapped, sold, denied opportunity, denied jobs, silenced, lynched? Do I need to go on, here?

I could see the argument for using a limited version of the word, to facilitate discussion while removing the unsettling charge that read the word generates in many U.S. readers of all races. In particular, I am sympathetic to the idea that in predominantly white schools, it may make nonwhite students feel singled out.

I wouldn’t really approve of it, but I can see a reasonable argument being made.

But using “n—–” and using “slave” are not equivalent. The former is distasteful to me because it attempts to make polite something that is manifestly impolite. The latter pretends that it was all very polite to begin with.

Doing so obliterates a student’s potential understanding of hundreds of years of race inequality. It ignores colonialism; it ignores the slave trade; it ignores the context of the slave trade. Furthermore, to remove that word ignores the context in which African Americans exist in the U.S. To remove it to avoid making school readers uncomfortable is to abdicate all of education’s responsibility to portray the world as it is — in all its bitter glory.

More importantly, is this intended to make African Americans as a group more comfortable? Or is it meant to make white people feel better? Because, you know, certain groups of white people in the U.S. have a history of not wanting to talk about race, and about racial inequality, and particularly of not wanting to acknowledge racism.

Meanwhile, other (and sometimes the same) groups of white people love to dictate what can be said about racism, which has the function not just of suppressing racist speech but of silencing minority voices.

As I said, I’m sympathetic to the potential discomfort of African American students on having to read and hear that word repeatedly by way of studying Huckleberry Finn. But just because racism is uncomfortable to discuss doesn’t mean it should be avoided.

How does erasing the history of this dangerous word help the cause of political correctness? How does it do anything except nullify the rage that all people of conscience (and, not to put too fine a point on it, African Americans in particular) are perfectly entitled to feel over the history of racism in the U.S.?

By removing the context for that rage, it makes any contemporary objection to historical racism seem small and petty. It makes those concerned with racism seem uppity and whiny. It serves the agenda of the far right that would like to sweep historical racism and inequality under the rug, so they don’t have to hear liberals and minorities “whine” anymore.

Just to trot out a Joe the Plumber or two, what happens when a white kid from some shit suburb who thinks Huckleberry Finn used the word “slave” instead of the n-word toodles off to college (or the East Village, man) and meets people who, just for instance, assert, “There is a significant history of racism in this country?”

I’ll tell you what happens, potentially. The white kid says, “WTF? You don’t know what you’re talking about. Sure, there was slavery, but at least they didn’t call the slaves dirty names or anything.”

Would it be more or less tragic if that was a kid of African-American descent saying that? Do you think it would affect that kid’s feeling about, say, affirmative action, or the physical danger that might be encountered if racist groups or gangs were to organize and commit racial violence, as they have historically and still do today?

Furthermore, the use of the word today in the black community forms a significant part of racial self-identity. Whether you’re black or white, or any of the other billions of people who aren’t either one, you can like it or hate it. But people use it, and the context in which they use it is important. If Mark Twain never used it, that context is damaged and the power of the word, for good or ill, is diminished.

Mark Twain put the word in there for a reason; it was common parlance in those days, and remains so today in a completely different context.

Twain was a white guy, yes, and you might think he didn’t have the right to “toss it around” any more than Roger Ebert did. But he did toss it around.

And Roger Ebert, thankfully, is still with us. Twain left us a portrayal of a time that none of us can ever know firsthand.

If we start fucking around with the historical record, we risk building a vision of that time that’s inaccurate.

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Amazon Erotica Authors Complain of Content-Based Removal

January 2nd, 2011 1 comment

Creative Commons image by Mike Licht of NotionsCapital.com.

A kerfuffle has erupted recently among authors of erotica who have published Kindle titles on Amazon.com. It turns out that those featuring content that violates Amazon’s notoriously vague “content guidelines” have been removed not only from Amazon’s catalog but from the Kindles of customers that have already bought that title.

As KDawson posted to Slashdot on December 15:

“The independent writers who publish on Amazon report that erotica books containing incest are being taken down with no explanation by Amazon, and removed from the Kindles of purchasers of the books. Author Selena Kitt writes: ‘I want to be clear that while the subject of incest may not appeal to some, there is no underage contact in any of my work, and I make that either explicitly clear in all my stories or I state it up front in the book’s disclaimer. I don’t condone or support actual incest, just as someone who writes mysteries about serial killers wouldn’t condone killing. What I write is fiction.’ Kindle’s own TV ad features a book with a story line of sex between a 19-year-old and his stepmother, defined in some states as incest (Sleepwalking by Amy Bloom).”

[Link.]

Then, on December 30, it was reported by Nom du Keyboard that the removal has been expanded to include male-on-male fiction on rape themes, pointing out:

“Recently word leaked out about Amazon removing titles containing fictional incest. Surprisingly that ban didn’t extend to the 10 titles of Science Fiction Grand Master Robert A. Heinlein that incorporate various themes of incest and pedophilia. Now, it seems that the censorship is expanding to m/m gay fiction if it contains the magic word ‘rape’ in the title. Just how far is this going to be allowed to proceed in relative silence, and who is pushing these sudden decisions on Amazon’s part?

…Nom du Keyboard’s post pointed us at  a post on the blog of Kyle Michel Sullivan), who has released male-on-male fiction with rape themes under the Amazon DTP (Digital Text Platform) system. Whether Sullivan’s work is intended to be erotic or arousing wasn’t entirely clear to me on first glance — but more on that later.

Amazon pulled Sullivan’s titles “How to Rape a Straight Guy” and “Rape in Holding Cell 6.” Sullivan quoted Amazon’s letter in response to a complaint about it:

During our review process, we found that your titles contain content that is in violation of our content guidelines. As a result, we have removed the books from our store.

Please note that if you continue to submit content that violates our content guidelines, we may conduct a general review of your account.  Actions resulting from such a review could result in a termination of your account.

[Link.]

Kyle wrote them back (in part):

I’m at a loss as to understand how my books violated your content guidelines.  They are not pornographic and have solid stories and meaning behind them.  The sex in them is not that much more detailed than what you find in Jackie Collins’ and Judith Krantz’s novels, all of which can be found in a library.  Also, you carry items that celebrate the torture and murder of women (see “Saw2″ “Hostel 2″ (oops) where a naked female is strung upside down and butchered so her blood can bathe another naked female lying under her) and the gleeful slaughter of human beings (“American Psycho”, for example).

Please don’t misunderstand me when I say I am not as outraged as Kyle Sullivan. It’s just that as an author, I’m not that surprised. Amazon’s content restrictions have always been bizarre at best. Their terms of service are complicated, like all terms of service, where the burden of understanding is on the user, not the company.

And what Amazon’s DTP terms of service say on the matter of content (last time I checked) is that no pornographic material is allowed. Amazon apparently feels empowered to decide what that means. I don’t roll my eyes at their willingness to make that call. I roll my eyes at their willingness to do so without telling me, as a consumer, what the hell they decided it means — except on a case by case basis, after the fact, and potentially after I’ve bought a title.

I have not read Sullivan’s work, so I have no idea if this is a case of a “serious” work of entertainment/social criticism/literature that happens to contain sexual and rape-relate themes. Whatever that word, “serious” means, let alone “entertainment,” “social criticism,” “literature.” It might also be a case of an erotica author pleading “redeeming literary value” in a reasonable argument for why explicitly sexual writing in all its forms should be allowed in any appropriate venue. I’m not so sure it matters, because that distinction is definitely in the eye of the beholder, and retailers like Amazon (or Barnes & Noble, or Waldenbooks, or Joe and Jane’s Bookstore) have made that call since time immemorial, on what grounds I couldn’t even begin to speculate from case to case.

As it pertains to Sullivan, since I haven’t read the works in question, I haven’t the foggiest idea whether we’re talking about “art” or “trash” or something in between — and I don’t care.

Amazon removing material from their site that they’ve arbitrarily decided violates their guidelines, after leaving it live for a few days, weeks, or months, is nothing new — virtually all hosting companies, credit card processors, blog engines, etc, have been doing this since dinosaurs walked the Earth. It is outrageous of them to do this, and it is a crappy way to do business. But it’s not new.

What’s new is that if you’re a Kindle consumer, Amazon can now come into your house and take your books from your Kindle because of their screw-up in not catching the content violation earlier.

As a reader of all forms of literature, and a ravenous consumer of books, I am thoroughly outraged by that.

The word “censorship” has been tossed around a lot in this matter, while all the Amazon apologists and kiss-asses flood the airwaves with their protestations that it’s only censorship if the govermment does it. I don’t know about that, exactly, but I’ll agree that censorship is a very dangerous word, and should be used with caution.

Anyone who has been writing erotica for any period of time knows — or, if they don’t, they’re not paying attention — that anywhere you write for (or publish with, even if you’re just photocopying your stories down at the Copy Kween) makes decision as to what they are okay with you saying using their property. They have no problem making money off of you, however, provided that what you say doesn’t violate, by their always arbitrary guidelines, what they consider sexually acceptable. Rape and incest, in explicit terms, has almost never been considered okay by publishers or bookstores, which is why they show up in bizarrely coded and camouflaged forms throughout the history of erotic literature.

The difference now is that consumers are purchasing works, paying for them, and then having them removed because Amazon has retroactively decided they shouldn’t have sold them in the first place. That is incredibly dangerous, and it’s designed to limit Amazon’s damage in the case of “violations” that were missed the first time around because there’s no meaningful pre-publication review process.

If this reminds anyone of 1984, it should. Back in 2009, people who had purchased an edition of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eight-Four from a certain publisher found it had vanished overnight from their Kindles, owing to the little problem of who owned the Nineteen Eight-Four copyright. It seems obvious to me that the issue there was quite explicitly that Amazon was limiting its liabilities, not protecting consumers in any way. If Amazon had published a print edition, they would have been legally liable for all the books they’d sold that they didn’t swipe back from consumer’s bookshelves. Clearly, in the case of a print edition that would have been impractical. In this case? It just took the push of a button. No muss, no fuss — and nothing to do with Nineteen Eight-Four‘s content, in political terms.

But erotica, as any published erotica author knows (or should know), is a whole nother ball game. Publishers, editors, bookstores and other outlets, magazines and blogs that might promote one’s work — they all (and I mean ALL!!!!!!) make broad sweeping generalizations and restrictions on content grounds, of one form or another. Rape and incest have traditionally been two of the themes completely verboten in most outlets, and certainly any broadly commercial outlet. You can publish all the rape or incest erotica you want in a virtually unregulated and unrestricted non-commercial forum like the Alt Sex Stories Text Repository (or ASSTR — that link is NSFW, in a BIG way). But even publishing rape-themed erotica on your blog is a very risky proposition, which is why ASSTR is as bare-bones as it is.

The problem is, and always has been, that sorting out what is “pornographic” is as difficult as ever. Authors who claim not to be pornographic have always been treated differently than those who, without apology, submit that they write to arouse their audiences.

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s no good way to draw a distinction between “this story is pornographic” and “this story is a serious work of social criticism that may involve the sexual arousal of the characters and/or the readers.” Feel free to make whatever boneheaded broad, sweeping suppositions you like about “porn” vs. “erotica” vs. “literature” — retailers, and now de facto publishers, like Amazon, will make different suppositions, I guarantee you — and no amount of arguing with them will sway them.

That’s always been the big challenge of writing sexual work on challenging themes. Erotic literature pioneer Maurice Girodas of Olympia Press got chased around Paris by the gendarmes. He and his friends carried their printing press out the back door and into a waiting jalopy while the cops pounded on the front door. The Girodas family later published William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller.

Whether Amazon has censored a Burroughs or a Henry Miller or an Anais Nin or whoever by this action — or just a Thomas Roche, and who cares — I haven’t the foggiest idea, and I don’t plan to find out. Either way, it’s nothing new from a writer’s or a retailer’s perspective.

As a writer, as I alluded to earlier, I frankly don’t give a damn.

But I read a hell of a lot more than I write. From a consumer’s perspective, this trend is completely new, and is phenomenally dangerous. It must not be allowed.

In fact I would say that, as a buyer of books, Amazon’s trend of retroactively canceling sales and removing work from your virtual bookshelf is absolutely catastrophic. It renders Amazon completely unacceptable as a retailer. In the case, for instance, of a CD that I buy, then legally rip, then illegally distribute as a set of MP3s, it takes legal action to hold me liable for that.

If Amazon’s position is that their sale to you can be rescinded at any time without notifying you, it has ceased to be a retailer. It can’t even claim to be a library, because libraries are (nowadays, usually) free. It is, at best, the on-demand equivalent of a radio station, except most radio stations are free, too. Why would one pay for the temporary use of a piece of text that they might have snatched from their computer at any time, when in the vast majority of cases they could obtain the same text for the same price from a company that doesn’t have a history of changing its mind and taking its purchase back?

Again, I will deliver my opinion explicitly, in case anyone missed it: Amazon must not remove from customers’ Kindles books they have already sold to them.

Amazon, either lock down your content at the starting gate, or take your lumps when you profit from the sale of something you’re uncomfortable profiting from.

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The Cyberwar Scorecard

December 13th, 2010 No comments

Over at ZDNet, Techyum’s own Violet Blue offers the best explanation yet of what exactly is meant (or not meant) by Anonymous, 4Chan, Project Chanology, Operation Payback, and the many other terms being slung around by the media the last few days. Said slinging has clearly resulted in the dissemination of more confusing disinformation and misinformation than ever. It’s all part of her roundup and scorecard on the global attacks, including news on this weekend’s major hack by #Gnosis at Gawker Media, and the origins of Operation Payback, Anonymous, etc — as well as what this all has to do with the Church of Scientology.

Utterly at sea when it comes to the subculture, the mainstream media has been relying on Wikipedia for answers. Wikipedia’s users have been recurrently citing non-primary sources and attributing information of questionable merit to anonymous/Anonymous sources of questionable provenance. You’d think Wikipedia is exactly the kind of site most vulnerable to misinformation in this case, but in fact the sites citing it, and mangling Wikipedia’s already mangled information, seem to be spreading the confusion contagion.

It just underscores how clueless most media sources are with their infrastructure, despite relying on it for everything. And if the media is confused, imagine how puzzled the politicians must be…

As Violet points out:

It is not unlike watching your peepaw unsuccessfully try to distinguish his emails from his “FacePage.”

Well, the rest is poorly documented history. But we do know that the scorecard is riveting. Whether it’s Operation Payback, Anonymous, or any number of other activists – the targets comprise a list with names so big it almost looks like a farcical Hollywood creation.

[Link.]

The heart of her article is the “scorecard,” which rounds up some of the most prominent smackdowns on both sides:

I wanted to see the big-league damage – from original Operation Payback and first Anonymous campaigns to current pro-Wikileaks DDoS attacks.

[Link.]

It’s like watching a prize fight…wait, it is watching a prize fight.

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Operation Confused Blogger

December 11th, 2010 No comments

UPDATE 12/12/2010: Check out CNET’s article on how Anonymous Anonymous really is, which mentions the one arrest so far in the case.

Somewhat embarrassingly, I blogged on Thursday (December 9) that “Anonymous” had threatened the EFF, then had it pointed out to me that Anonymous is not a single group or a monolithic entity like, say, PostFinance, PayPal or the British government. The “Anon_Operations” Twitter account that rendered the now oft-reported, oft-re-reported, and oft-re-re-re-reported threat has, since that threat, only re-tweeted Wikileaks tweets.

There’s no indication that the Anon_Operations account has anything at all to do with any of the hackers who launched Operation Payback, which according to Wikipedia may have began in retribution for Bollywood studio torrent trackers back in September. (Confused yet? I apparently am.) There’s also not one “atom” of evidence that the account is associated with those who launched Operation Avenge Assange, attacked PostFinance, PayPal, or anyone else, reportedly on Julian Assange’s behalf.

My assumptions that “Anonymous” was anything like a “group” was complete boneheadednesss. I’m now told it’s an “internet gathering,” though whether any the “individual” telling me that is even remotely associated with Operations Payback or Avenge Assange, I haven’t the faintest whisper of a hint of a sniff of a distant memory of a clue.

My outrage about the threat delivered Thursday can remain intact — but it should have been directed solely at that individual who made it, who might not even be a hacker, could have been joking, and/or could be the badest-assest hacker around, and still be an asshole, and still have been joking.

The criticisms I made should have been pointed at that single person. That was major idiocy on my part; mea culpa.

The good news is that I’m in good company! At least, according to a press release from Anonymous itself — ha ha ha ha! See what I did there? That’s a little joke. A “press” “release” from a “group” that “isn’t” “a” “group.” Ha ha ha ha! How is that possible? Same way a non-group can have a “manifesto,” but that’s what it’s being reported “Anonymous” released on Thursday. I’m sure this all makes sense to people far more 133t than m3, but 1′m just a c4v3m4n, and your bright lights and talk-boxes frighten me.

Since this is all about the Wiki, let’s start with a visit to the Wikipedia page on Anonymous, which directs me to the “press release” supposedly issued by Anonymous. The exact Wikipedia line at the moment I type this is: “Anonymous issued a press release in an attempt to clarify the issue,” a statement referenced to an un-bylined article on UK technology blog thinq.co.uk. The article says, in part: Read more…

Cyberwar! The Myth of Point/Counterpoint in the NYT and The Guardian

December 9th, 2010 No comments

Skull icon by the author.

When a cyberwar shows up on page 1 of the New York Times, you know it’s really a cyberwar, right?

That’s where the article print-headlined Hackers Attack Sites Considered Wikileaks Foes (it has a slightly different headline in the online version) appeared this fine morning, naming as targets Julian Assange’s Swedish prosecutor and Mastercard (which stopped processing donations to Wikileaks), among others previously reported (Paypal and Amazon among them).

But the interesting thing is what passes for analysis on the front page of the Times (or anywhere) nowadays:

The Internet assaults underlined the growing reach of self-described “cyber anarchists,” antigovernment and anticorporate activists who have made an icon of Mr. Assange, whom they consider one of their own.

[Link]

…which sounds just a little too much like a fictional news story in a unfinished, unpublished and very bad cyberpunk novel I myself might have written, circa 1993, if you replace “Mr. Assange” with “Lucrezia LeHack” or something.

And I’m not the only science fiction old-timer who thinks reality is running disturbingly close to fiction on this matter; CNET’s headline The Anonymous Hackers: Are They Really the Borg? pretty much spells like it sounds.

In any event, the NYT’s latest suggests “Hactivists” [quotes theirs] Threaten More Attacks on Wikileaks Foes — which is actually not a new article but an updated version of the old one that appeared in the print edition this morning, at least on the West coast of the US.

Over in the UK, however, where they have almost half a dozen hours’ jump on our New York friends, the Guardian is claiming that both the “left” and the “right” in the United States want Assange prosecuted.

In an article headlined Julian Assange Cast as Common Enemy as US Left and Right Unite and subtitled “Growing clamour sees Republicans and Democrats demanding action against WikiLeaks founder,” the Guardian apparently conflates “Republican” and “Democrat” with “right” and “left.”

The Guardian, incidentally, “is known for its left-of-centre political stance,” so their confusing the Democrats with the Left in the United States really should get them a kick in the nuts so hard they’ll never mix up “center” and “centre” again. Read more…

Why College No Longer Blows: Television and Brrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnssss

October 25th, 2010 2 comments

Creative Commons Photo by Jackie Kingsbury.

There’s a story by Debra Levi Holtz in today’s SF Chronicle about a new course at UC Berkeley that analyzes AMC’s Mad Men. As Holtz puts it:

The class is part of UC Berkeley’s DeCal program, a student-run education undertaking that allows students to create and facilitate their own classes on a variety of often unconventional subjects. Considered a unique and “democratic” aspect of Berkeley’s undergraduate program, the program offers 150 courses each semester for up to two units of academic credit on topics that range from Harry Potter and “Sex and the City” to numismatics and swing dance.

For what it’s worth, I was a guest lecturer at DeCal classes at UC Berkeley several times over the years. I think this stuff rocks. But the article makes kind of a lot out of the “unusual” idea:

During the weekly class, the TV show is given the treatment normally reserved for works of literature. Words like “archetype” and “tragic” pop up frequently as students analyze Mad Men’s glamorous yet troubled characters. The class explores the politics and culture of the early ’60s and discusses themes such as the role of women in the workplace, class and society, marriage and family.

…which tells me that Levi has never talked about Scarface with coke-addled screenwriters or hung out talking Firefly with pseudo-intellectual science fiction geeks, or guys writing zombie apocalypse novels based on Lysistrata.

American Studies professors and people who smoke weed have been tearing pop literature and television apart for decades, doing wacky things like comparing Forbidden Planet to The Tempest and Star Trek episodes to Shelley’s Adonaïs — somebody stop them! They’re going cuh-raaaaayyyyzeeee!

Just how vast a No Man’s Land between literature and entertainment does the mainstream media think there is? Let’s not act like we’re reinventing the wheel here, shall we?

To my way of thinking, this stuff is a positive trend, but the fact that mainstream sources keep reporting that college courses deconstructing pop culture properties are somehow suspect — and need to be justified through extensive rationalization — makes me worry that the people who write newspaper articles believe what they see on TV neither has subtext nor is worthy of assault from a critical view.

Do people who write for the media actually believe what they see in the media?

And that, my friends, is a terrifying thought.

Oh, but did somebody mention zombies a minute ago? Yeah, funny they should come up around Casa Techyum, ’cause, like, that never happens. Did you know Professor Arnold Blumberg is teaching a zombie class in the Literature department this semester at the University of Baltimore? No shit!!!!  Now THAT sumbitch gets a Techyum high-cinco, not so much for teaching a zombie class as for bringing a severed head to class on the first day, an event the Baltimore Sun regales us with:

Arnold Blumberg plops the zombie head on a table at the front of the small theater.

“I brought a friend,” says the University of Baltimore professor, clad in an unbuttoned black shirt adorned with red skulls.

Blumberg is meeting his class for the first time and it seems appropriate that he greet them beside “old Worm Eye,” undead star of the 1979 Italian cult film “Zombi 2.”

It turns out he’s not just your garden-variety lit professor who teaches a zombie class. He’s a garden-variety lit professor who teaches a zombie class, wrote a book about zombies and a series of Dr. Who fan merchandise guides, and while we’re at it who blogs about science fiction, monster movies, and the politics of the word “geek” at his ATBPublishing blog.

The Baltimore zombie class got Prof. Blumberg coverage in the BBC, the Washington Post (who topped their article with the 28 Days Later trailer), CNET (which headlined theirs “Zombies to fill brains…” — DOH!!), and MSNBC (whose article mentions Georgetown’s internet-famous “The Philosophy of Star Trek” course and MIT’s “American Pro Wrestling” and soap opera courses) — among many others.

As mentioned, Blumberg’s class is taught in the literature department, but was at least partially inspired by the University of Baltimore’s new Pop-Culture minor.

Needless to say, government security around Baltimore has been tight since Blumberg’s class started. But a satellite-relay connection from Techyum offices deep in Cheyenne mountain to a Japanese surveillance satellite produced this photo of a few of the students lumbering out of Blumberg’s class:

Creative Commons satellite surveillance photo by David Kent, Flickr user Simple Pleasures.

…well, at least the crisis has helped them find Jesus.

Seriously, this is a wave sweeping the intellectual life of our nation faster than pink underwear! Don’t delay!!! Act now!!! Prepare, before these infectiously thought-provoking classes reach your institutional learning facility!!! Educate yourself, read up on the issue, and get your toys ready! Be sure to put out some decoys for the trigger-happy Freshmen, have your escape planned, and when midterms come please comply with all instructions from municipal authorities!

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