Thursday, April 06, 2006


Time for a rant. Today saw what could be yet another landmark in the death of democracy. Republican Senators agreed to a very bad “compromise” immigration reform bill.

This “compromise” grants immediate amnesty to seven million illegal aliens. Permanent residency now, citizenship in five years, provided they pay a modest fine and some amount of back taxes. (Does anyone think it will be possible to assess such back taxes accurately, or that there will be any will to exclude a candidate over a disputed amount?) I wouldn't be surprised if that the amnesty is on-going, too: i.e. no requirement that the illegal report in now, but available whenever he gets caught later on.

Three million more illegals can get legal residence as “temporary workers” by visiting a “point of entry” (the nearest international airport, for instance). They have to leave the U.S., allegedly, but are guaranteed re-entry and six years of residency. That's six years to marry a citizen or permanent resident, or have a child, or find some other loophole. And does anyone think that there will be any effort to find and deport these “temps” at the end of their probation?

In addition, the bill will admit 400,000 more “temporaries” each year.

The Democrats gave up nothing, as far as I can tell. When Republicans wanted to exclude convicted felons from the amnesty, the Democrats screamed that this would “gut” the bill.

Nothing much will be done to secure the border. Nothing at all will be done to enforce the laws against employing illegals.

In short, this “reform” bill does nothing to get rid of any current illegals, and nothing to deter any future illegals.

How is this the death of democracy? Because every segment of the American public opposes this policy; only among recent Hispanic immigrants is opposition merely lukewarm. The admission of large numbers of low-skill immigrants drives down wages for low-skill Americans, such as blacks and teenagers. But Congress is apparently compelled to do it anyway. It doesn't matter what the people want; what matters is elite opinion - in the press, the academy, and the foundations, all well-known hives of left-wing sentiment. Republicans sometimes defy the institutional Left, but on this issue they are listening exclusively to business lobbyists, whose clients love that cheap illegal labor. (Every drive to enforce the hiring laws has been shot down by business opposition.)

Republicans will almost certainly pay for this in November; a lot of alienated Republican voters will stay home. Republicans will certainly pay for it in the long term. These millions of illegals will become 90% Democrat voters, led carefully to the polls by left-wing ethnic-activist groups funded by the foundations and the government, and gerrymandered into safe “majority-minority” Democrat districts.

So: on an issue of critical national importance, what the people what means nothing. And Republicans (the Stupid Party) are collaborating in their own long-term destruction.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

It Used To Be Good

Last night I watched a recent episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. This has been a pretty amusing crime drama, featuring a quirky genius “star detective” (Goren) and his unflashy but effective partner (Eames). Many episodes have featured ingenious plots, clever and/or eccentric villains, and surprising but plausible motives. They usually end with an interrogation in which Goren goads the suspect into confessing by brilliant psychological manipulation.

But this time I was appalled by the shoddy scriptwriting. To explain how bad it was, spoilers are required.

The victim is Trip Slaughter, son of elderly billionaire Jonas Slaughter. Jonas has another son, Chance, a young Chinese second wife, Anna, and a four-year-old daughter with Anna, Emma. Trip was strangled in a hotel room after an apparent session of kinky sex. Oscar Landau, a globetrottter staying in the room next door, heard and saw nothing. He flew to Istanbul the next morning. There is some dispute over the family trust, with Anna seeking a share for Emma, which would reduce the shares of Trip and Chance. Chance's wife is especially bitchy toward Anna and Emma.

The first “clue” is an economics text found in the room. Its author (Larry) is a professor at an upstate college that Trip visited several times. Larry
's into the same kinky sex as Trip seemed to be, and from things he said to his dominatrix, Goren and Eames discover that he is Anna's former husband. Was he trying to blackmail the Slaughters through Trip, or was Trip looking for dirt on Anna? Larry admits he was in New York that night, to meet Trip at a bar, but Trip never showed.

Then Goren and Eames discover that Jonas flew in his private jet to Istanbul the day after - this after Jonas ostentatiously presents some Turkish candy. Landau confesses that Jonas met him there and paid him to keep silent about the pretty Oriental woman he saw in the hall.

Next some of Trip's jewelry turns up in a Chinatown pawnshop. It was hocked by a Chinese dominatrix (Ms. Cho) who says Larry met her in the bar and paid her to entertain Trip as a supposed gift, and to get Trip very drunk in the process. Trip gave her the bling as a tip. Larry denies ever meeting Cho, and Goren spots a discrepancy that confirms this. Cho turns out to be a long-time associate of Landau, who is a fixer-for-hire.

There's a connecting door between Trip's room and Landau's. Forensics discovers that the lock was tampered with. Landau now admits that he was hired by Trip to get dirt on Anna, but when his results were presented to Jonas, Jonas hired him to protect Anna. Did he kill Trip on Jonas' orders? He wants a deal before he talks.

Meanwhile Jonas tells Anna she should take Emma to China to spend some time with “her real family”. (This is a complete non sequitur. Was Emma adopted in some early version of the script? Emma appears purely Chinese, not half-white, and is referred to as a half-sister. Oddly, she addresses Trip as "Uncle Trip".) Jonas also starts drinking heavily and obsessively watching home videos of Trip shot by Emma, who loves to play with her videocam.

Goren and Eames come to arrest Anna. Anna denies everything. They give her a moment to talk with Jonas. Jonas says he has arranged for “reasonable doubt” all over the place, to protect Anna. Then, to Anna's horror, he admits that he had Trip killed, which is caught on Emma's videocam, left on by Anna. When arrested, Jonas turns on Anna, calls her a yellow slut and Emma a mongrel. Anna weeps of her devotion to Jonas.

At arraignment, Jonas denies all charges and is released on recognizance. On the steps of the courthouse, Chance pulls a gun and attacks Anna, but is mortally wounded by Eames. With his dying words, he confesses to the murder of Trip. Jonas stalks off with Chance's wife, whose unborn son is now Jonas' male heir. Jonas exchanges words with a woman who says she got Chance's “dying declaration” on videotape. As Jonas gets in his limo, Goren confronts him and and says “Kill one son and get the other to take the blame." Jonas answers “That's what sons are for."

OK, so what are we to make of this mess?

Landau broke into Trip's hotel room. Why? To kill Trip?

Did Landau kill Trip on Jonas' orders? Why? To protect Anna?

If Landau killed Trip for Jonas, why did Jonas fly to Istanbul to meet him? In a private jet, thus calling attention to their connection?

Why would Landau say that Jonas paid him to deny seeing Anna in the hotel, when she was never there?

Did Cho actually do her thing with Trip? Trip's estranged wife said his idea of “kinky” was turning down the sports news during sex, not a latex bodysuit, such as he was found in. Did Landau stage the sex scene evidence and bring in Cho to frame Larry? But it's a weak frame that depends on the testimony of a single witness of dubious credibility.

And the finale is truly bizarre. Did Jonas induce Chance to commit “suicide by cop” so that he could take the murder rap with his dying declaration, to be recorded by Jonas' pre-positioned cameraman? Jonas is a monster of egoism, but that's way over the top. Why would Chance do that? Likewise, Chance submits to his father, but that far?

And that plan seems extravagantly fluky. What are the odds that Chance would be tackled by a cop, or killed instantly, or survive the wounds? Or accidently shoot someone else? It makes no sense at all.

The portrayed investigation is sloppy. Why is there no follow-up with Landau? Aside from the connecting door, there's no examination of forensics from the death scene. Cho would have left fingerprints, if she was there; the hotel security cameras would have seen comings and goings.

I've seen weak or flawed scripts before, but this one is just incoherent.

This is clever

Trivial, but clever. A new supermarket opened in my area a few months ago. It's a bit far for me to shop at regularly, so I didn't go there till yesterday. The chain is "Food4Less", and they do have low prices. Their gimmick is that customers do their own bagging. This should cause a hold-up at the register, because customers, not being practiced baggers, will often fall behind the cashiers. Now comes the clever part.

Each register island has one incoming belt, and two outgoing belts, running to two bagging stations. There's a swinging gate-board to direct stuff down one belt or the other. As long as the customers are half as fast as the checkers, there will be no hold-up.

OK, it's trivial. But it is clever, even elegant.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

An odd reason to lie

The corruption trial of ex-Governor George Ryan was nearly derailed (and may yet be aborted) because two jurors lied on their questionnaires. They didn’t acknowledge potentially disqualifying history. One of them has felony convictions for drunk driving, and once had to be rousted from his home by the SWAT team, where he was holed up with unlicensed shotguns. The other has been arrested several times on drug charges. Both have been removed from the jury, which has been deliberating for several days, and replaced by alternate jurors. (This procedure may not survive appeal; the alternative is a mistrial.)

What baffles me is why they lied. Most people want to get out of jury duty, especially when it’s a big case that could last for months. Yet these people lied their way onto the jury in just such a case.

The Y1K Panic

Here's an example of the Flamingo's wriggling: this essay by medieval historian Richard Landes of Boston University. It explores the reaction of French scholars to his work on the extent and the remarkable social effects on Catholic Europe and especially France of the millenialist panic of 1000 A.D. That there was such a panic was proposed by the 19th century French historian Jules Michelet. Later historians rejected the idea, citing the almost complete absence from contemporary chronicles of any mention of such a panic.

Then after WW II, the Annales school of French historians began to pursue “social history.” They looked to what the great mass of people commonly believed and thought (and did), and how those beliefs and thoughts and doings changed. This school found “a vast and profound cultural mutation” at the turn of the millenium.

Landes, building on their work, and using the memoirs of the monk Ademar of Chabannes, revived the idea of a millenial panic, and then linked it to the social changes. He even goes so far as to assert that the panic (and the reaction to its fizzle) triggered developments which made French culture the seed of medieval and then modern Europe. These developments flowed through the masses and not the rulers. The absence of explict millenial-panic references can be explained, too: the clerics who composed the chronicles preferred to forget about this embarrassing episode.

That’s something I never thought of, never even imagined. One element of Landes’ argument is that calendric millenarianism (wait for the year 1000) was used over and over again in earlier centuries to discredit self-appointed prophets and messiahs who preached an imminent Day of Judgment. This bill came due, eventually, and the impact was enought to shake up the whole society.

Or so Landes argues. About half the essay is about the radical change in French history in the 1990s, when the “vast mutation” thesis was repudiated, and how this led to Landes’ rejection by French historians, including a couple of books devoted to refuting him. Landes argues that this was due to the French elite’s discomfort with society being changed by the commons.

Friday, March 24, 2006

What the name signifies

One of the episodes in Alice in Wonderland is the Queen of Heart's croquet game. Like everything in Wonderland, the game is absurd. The balls are curled-up live hedgehogs, which unroll and walk away when they feel like it. The arches are the Queen's playing-card soldiers, bent over double. They too move about at will. And the mallets are flamingos: the player cradles the flamingo's body with the neck and head hanging down to strike.
The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo: she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough, under her arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, it would twist itself round and look up in her face, with such a puzzled expression that she could not help bursting out laughing…
Robert Heinlein used this as a metaphor for his narrator's reaction to Nevia, the world where half of the action of his seems-like-heroic-fantasy-but-is-really-SF novel Glory Road is set.
Like Alice trying to cope with the Flamingo, every time I thought I had it licked, it would wiggle loose.
That's how I see the world today: every time I think I have it grasped, it wriggles loose. Something turns out to be wildly different from what I had come to expect. When I encounter such a surprise, I'll blog about it here.