Archive for December, 2010

The Sign of the M

December 24, 2010

Many years ago, I started work on a speculative fiction short story about a dystopic world in which a sizeable portion of the population worshipped Murphy, as in Murphy’s Law (whatever can possibly go wrong, will.) The public demonstration of their faith was the Sign of the M, made by holding either hand with three fingers extended downward. Usually this was an apotropaic sign, as the anthropologists say, to ward off the nastier consequences of Murphy’s Law. I never finished writing the story (which involved psychedelic experiences caused by claustrophobia in a windowless world, among other things), but the cult of Murphy stuck with me.

It revisited my head yesterday, when I heard on the radio one of numerous stories about people who are now suing various banks and mortgage agencies. About a year and a half ago, the feds came up with a program to help people get their mortgages modified and avoid foreclosure. In practice, the program, and those trying to avail themselves of its benefits, have been thwarted by a pattern of bumbling and non-responsiveness on the part of the mortgagors that could be explained only as (a) conspiracy, or (b) Murphy’s Law at its apocalyptic worst. As I understand it (and what do I know, I’m just a lawyer?), to get your mortgage modified (to lower either the monthly payments, the rate of interest, the total amount owed, or more than one of the above), you have to contact whoever holds your mortgage and “work it out” with them. Naturally, they will want documentation both of the existence and terms of the current mortgage, and the problems that now lead you to want it modified. Usually that means lots of financial documentation, roughly parallel to a tax audit. The uninitiated may find this to be unnecessarily intrusive or just too damn much trouble to bother with. But we more sophisticated white-collar types figure it’s perfectly fair, and generally manage to comply with these demands, albeit with some difficulty because (a) nobody ever remembers exactly when something happened, and (b) most people don’t know exactly where anything is.

The plaintiff in one of these lawsuits explained that she kept contacting the bank to find out what documentation they needed, and sending it in. Each time, she would then find out they either needed one more piece of paper, or that they hadn’t received the last piece of paper she had sent them. Every time she called, a different person would answer, and would have to find her file and ascertain what had previously happened in her case. Eventually, it all came down to a single tax document. She sent it in, and then called to see whether they had received it. They hadn’t. Lather, rinse, repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Next thing she knew, some stranger was standing on her front lawn auctioning off her house on behalf of the bank, which had foreclosed, because, they claimed, they had never received that single last tax document. The semi-happy semi-ending in this case is that the court ultimately suspended the foreclosure, and is now graciously permitting her to live in her home and continue to make the payments on her mortgage pending resolution of the lawsuit.

But think about it, gentle reader. How different is this cycle of misfortune from what most of us deal with at least once a week, with somewhat easier and more favorable resolutions? The difference between us (so far, anyway) and the unlucky Ms. Plaintiff is all in the relative competence of the bureaucracy on the other end of the process. Eventually, they usually get it right.

Let’s leave aside, for another day’s posting, the question of whether there really is a conspiracy involved in the mortgage modification mess. It wouldn’t surprise me, but Murphy is perfectly capable of messing up transactions like this on his/its own. My brother and my daughter, who both do astrological charts, would attribute a lot of this stuff to Mercury being retrograde. I actually know realtors (mostly of Asian ancestry) who won’t schedule a closing when Mercury is retrograde.*

Anyway, while listening to Ms. Plaintiff, it occurred to me to wonder whether there is anybody out there who doesn’t have to deal with this kind of administrative bumbling. See, on roughly the same subject, only with the congressional representative of a fairly important district as the protagonist.

The Wired family is actually caught in a similar bind at the moment, unable to pay for a very necessary medication until the New Year. This happens because the insurance program which provides Part D coverage has decided this is the time for the deductible to kick in, but the various assistance programs for the pharmaceutical companies are available only to people who don’t have medication insurance coverage. And the reason for this inability to pay is that a bunch of clients who owe me roughly a year’s income between them haven’t paid, and most of them really can’t pay, for reasons very similar to my own.

All I need, perhaps all most people need, is for the system to work properly by its own standards. This would entail the people who owe me money paying on time, the people I send documents to not losing them, the people I talk to on the phone on various important matters either being available the next time I call, or at least taking good notes so the next person I talk to there will be able to find the file and then get up to speed on the case while I am on the phone with him/her. Judging by the experience of Maxine Waters, getting elected to Congress wouldn’t entitle me to this. Probably being POTUS or very rich would. Which makes it not only a privilege, but a really rare one.

In some situations, the M Factor can be literally deadly. The procedural histories of most of the death penalty cases that find their way to the Supreme Court are swamps of the M Factor. It is no coincidence that most of the defendants in these cases are poor, poorly-educated, and poorly represented. It is probably no coincidence that so much of the Supreme Court’s wisdom is expended on deciding whether a particular occurrence of the M Factor is serious enough to justify overturning a guilty verdict or a death sentence.

On the other hand, POTUS, and the very rich, are not necessarily exempt from these hassles. What their privilege generally gets them is the services of somebody else, usually somebody reasonably competent, to resolve them. There is actually a job title for this: Personal Assistant. Arguably, there may even be a career path for it: wife. President George H.W. Bush was famously enthralled by the electronic gizmos at grocery checkout counters, not because no grocery store was involved in the purchasing of his daily bread, but because somebody else had always been the one to stand in the checkout lines for it. Does this mean that the M Factor (let’s call it that for the purposes of this discussion), like matter and energy, cannot be eliminated, but only moved around, delegated, transformed?

I don’t know if anyone has actually done a systematic study of the M Factor as such, under any name.. Hamlet calls it “the law’s delay,” and cites it as one good reason for suicide. It gets examined for other purposes under other names, for instance, in the study of Third World systems and why they work so badly. Corruption is merely a subspecies of the M Factor—it is the money one pays to various functionaries to keep the M Factor from totally destroying a transaction. Various hierarchies of public and domestic service exist mainly both to create the M Factor, and to keep it under control.

The M Factor raises some great politico-philosophical questions. Is it inherent in the human condition? Are those who either try to eliminate it or try to avoid dealing with it in their own lives guilty of hubris? Is a life free from the depredations of the M Factor, a life where everything works the way it is supposed to, a privilege everybody should have, or a privilege nobody should have? Most of us perceive rich people as having to deal with less of the M Factor than poor people, and people in rich countries dealing with less of it than people in poor countries. Is this reality, or appearance? Is the amount of the M Factor per person constant, subject only to being delegated or moved around? Or can affluence actually get rid of at least some of it? And if so, is affluence necessary for that purpose, or merely sufficient? Is there some other way to do the job?

Until we get a better handle on the workings of the M Factor, maybe worshipping it is the best we can do. Ommmmmm’s the word.


Abuses of WikiPlumbing

December 19, 2010

The Wired Family is somewhat confused about the WikiLeaks revelations and the various reactions to them. Mr. Wired thinks they were a really bad idea, and Julian Assange should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. But the sisters are all uncomfortable with this proposal. Red, predictably enough, considers Julian to be a hero. She looks forward to the end of official secrecy in the Western world. Jane, on the other hand, misses diplomatic discretion, which did some useful things in its day. Cyn is most concerned, not about the breaches of governmental secrecy, but about the measures being taken to discourage repeat performances.

First, Cyn, being the lawyer in the family, is discomfited by repeated proclamations that the US government (and probably others as well) is trying to figure out how to rewrite the Espionage Act to cover the behavior of Assange and his sources. Umm, guys, that’s behavior that has already happened. Which means any law enacted or amended now to punish it is an ex post facto law. And Article One of the US Constitution specifically prohibits the enactment of such laws. Okay, maybe the government just wants to close the barn door before the next batch of horses is stolen. That’s not what it sounds like.

Secondly, Cyn finds the behavior of private agencies against Assange and his buddies really scary. Closing down his server and his domain; shutting down credit card donations to his website; arresting him for utterly unrelated criminal charges in Sweden, which may or may not have any factual basis, and in either case may or may not be the sort of thing the Swedish courts normally prosecute—try to imagine, gentle reader, how easily you could be the target of such sanctions, if some government took a dislike to you. Note that most of these sanctions were implemented by private organizations, such as MasterCard, Amazon, Bank of America, PayPal, Visa and Swiss bank PostFinance. Suppose your bank decided to stop accepting deposits to your account. No more direct deposit of your paycheck or your pension. Suppose your website, or blogsite, or email, got cut off by your server. If you have not had the foresight to put a substantial portion of your money into your mattress, you may discover yourself homeless and broke, and unable to communicate your plight to most of your friends and family. Writers of speculative fiction have played with this scenario for several decades now—most notably Whitley Strieber in Nature’s End and John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, but the list is a lot longer. We have all entrusted our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to a bunch of faceless non-governmental strangers who can all too easily be co-opted against us by an irritated government (or even an irritated corporation.) After all, under US law, MasterCard, Amazon, and their other buddies, as non-governmental actors, are not bound by the Equal Protection and Due Process mandates of the Constitution.

Assange, of course, is far from friendless. His supporters are retaliating against the above-mentioned malefactors with Denial of Service attacks far beyond my poor power to add or detract. But how many of us have access to such support? Maybe while governments are tinkering with the machineries of censorship to fend off the next batch of leaks, the rest of us should be organizing a vigilante support mechanism to protect ourselves from the vengeance of the international bankers and servers.

Maybe Assange deserves it. I haven’t read most of the leaked documents, or even read a synopsis of them. The ones I do know anything about seem more embarrassing than dangerous. Red, as previously indicated, likes to see politicians embarrassed. It may help keep them honest. But even if he had put the formula for the Universal Solvent on the front page of the New York Times, or done something else that really deserved punishment and needed deterrence, so far nobody except maybe the Swedes are even trying to follow the law in sanctioning him.

There are a few other background questions that need exploration. Like: how many of these leaked documents were originally created with the specific intention of being leaked, as unofficial and unauthorized but plausibly deniable and highly useful communications? Or in the alternative, is there any likelihood that some or more of the documents were falsified or redacted by WikiLeaks to say things they never originally meant to say? And if so, how does that change their legal status (compare: the guy who knowingly sells oregano claiming it is marijuana—what crime, if any, has he committed? Or suppose he sells it with the explicit disclaimer that it is oregano, but wink-wink-nudge-nudge we all know better don’t we?)

Consider the bizarre fate of Leonard Lewin’s Report from Iron Mountain ( The_Report_from_ Iron_ Mountain), a kind of fictionalized predecessor of the very real Pentagon Papers. It was published in 1967 as a satire purporting to be a report on military-industrial policy prepared by several government officials and think tankers. But 30 years later, a right-wing nutcase printed excerpts from it in his propaganda screeds, and defended himself (unsuccessfully) against Lewin’s copyright suit by claiming it was a government document and therefore in the public domain. What if the WikiLeaks papers turn out to be another Report from Iron Mountain? Or, as the Italians say, Si non e vero, e

Ben Trovato *

*A friend of the Wired Family, and director of the Iron Mountain Office of Creative Publicity and Quasi-Factual Information.

If It Were Not Written…

December 6, 2010

The rabbis who put the Talmud together used to say, when they mentioned something especially weird or counterintuitive, “If it were not written, it would be impossible to believe it.” I guess that’s Aramaic for “Honest! No kidding!”

Every now and then, we run into a whole bunch of counterintuitive stuff at once. This has been one of those weeks. For instance, a psychologist, at /research/proposal-classify-happiness-psychiatric-disorder/, is proposing to designate happiness as a mental disorder. Presumably it should turn up in DSM-X or whatever as Inappropriate Euphoric Disorder. This is not totally out of step with what we know about happiness and its opposite. Depressed people, we have known for a long time, have a more accurate perception of reality than non-depressed people (See http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/ Depressive_realism) This suggests that happiness causes a distorted view of reality. Surely that should qualify it as a mental disorder.

And then there’s the influence of mercury poisoning on avian sexual orientation. See, for the original study. This one is interesting because it may provide an explanation for declining sperm counts in human males (see and perhaps also for the increasing visibility of human homosexual behavior. In which case, no, people aren’t born with it, but they don’t choose it either.

And then there’s what I just heard on our local public radio station, on “To the Best of Our Knowledge”, which this week is discussing the human soul (or lack thereof.) In the course of this discussion, one of the interlocutors, Parker Palmer (I think), said that a more scientific society is likely to be more authoritarian because it leads us to be more dependent on “experts.” Once again I had to restrain myself from leaping up and shouting “This is bullsh*t.” The only difference between “scientifically advanced” cultures and “primitive” ones is that our “experts” are somewhat more likely to know what they are talking about than their “experts.” But humans, at any level of scientific advancement, will rely on the available “experts” to resolve uncertainties. In fact, a case can be made that human culture creates “experts” in order to be able to rely on them. And we make our “experts” out of the currently available material, regardless of its fallibility. The fallibility may vary; the reliance does not.

And then there’s the Unintended Consequences problem. For instance, Israel encourages some Palestinians to emigrate. Like migrant populations from anyplace, they are most likely to want to immigrate to the United States. Some of them succeed. A lot of them end up moving to the Detroit area. This creates at least one and probably a couple of congressional districts that take some hardline anti-Israel positions, and perhaps move the US Congress as a whole a squinch more in that direction. And, more recently (speaking of public radio), as public radio budgets get cut (even though they have not yet lost all federal funding, which hasn’t been a large part of their budgets in the last decade or so anyway), they find that one of the cheapest ways to get programming their audiences will enjoy is to buy them from the Brits and the Canadians. Which may encourage our “cultural elite” to adopt a more European, or leftist, or blue-state point of view.


America Needs Better Political Theater

December 3, 2010

Today, Rep. Charles Rangel stood in the well of the House Chamber while Speaker Pelosi read out a resolution of censure.

All three of the Wired Sisters had questions about the proceeding. Jane, being both the most literary and the most easily shocked, kept thinking about King Lear and Oedipus Rex and other fallen monarchs, possibly even including Milton’s Lucifer.

Cyn merely wondered at the apparent disproportionality of the punishment to the alleged misdeeds, and finally concluded that, behind the scenes, Rangel must have been really unpleasant to a lot of his colleagues who welcomed the chance for revenge.

But Emma, who is fond of political theater, found the whole thing boring. The Japanese used to be really good at this stuff, which generally concluded with seppuku. Pope Gregory got to put on a good show at Canossa, with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow to apologize (okay, it doesn’t snow very often in Washington, and probably nobody was willing to wait that long.) King Henry II of England got scourged by monks at Canterbury for having encouraged the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Those guys had style. Washington has a perfectly good theatrical community, and could always bring in outside talent if necessary, so why put on what looked like nothing so much as a petulant schoolboy being scolded by his teacher? Congress needs to retain a dramaturge or a ritualist or something, to put some zing into its routines. Slogan for the next election: If you can’t stun, don’t run.

The Wired Sisters, collectively

Rude Awakening

December 3, 2010

I slept a little late this morning. What woke me was the news on the radio. Specifically, what woke me was the news, in two closely adjacent pieces, that Congress (1) would not extend the unemployment compensation benefits for the long-term jobless, and (2) that God’s Own Party does want to extend the Bush tax cuts, not only for lower- and middle-income taxpayers, but for those making more than $250K per year. They don’t want to extend unemployment benefits ( which would put a $65B dent in the budget) unless they can be “paid for” by cuts in some other area. They are not the least bit interested in demonstrating how the tax cuts for billionaires (roughly a $700B addition to the deficit) can be “paid for.” With great difficulty I restrained myself from leaping out of bed shouting “this is bullsh*t,” which would have painfully startled Mr. Wired and the cat out of their sound sleep.

Let’s break this down a bit. Those losing their unemployment compensation benefits number roughly 800,000 human beings, most of them with families. The average weekly benefit for each member of this unfortunate group is $300.00. That’s a total annual income of $15,000.00 per person, or more likely, per family. Keeping the Bush tax rates for all taxpayers would mean that the something like 225,000 households in the highest tax bracket (up in the $300,000s per year, or 20 times the average annual unemployment benefit) would be taxed at a maximum marginal rate of 35% instead of 38.6%. Crunch the numbers for yourself.

But, the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln tells us, the upper bracket tax cuts are different from the pittance we give unemployed workers. If we give the unemployed their weekly $300.00, they’ll just use it to buy food and pay rent and put gas in their cars so they can keep looking for jobs. If we give the rich more money, they will use it to create jobs. (I love the word “create” in this context. It well-nigh apotheosizes Big Business. One can see Donald Trump leaning out over the heavens, his fingertip outstretched to a Walmart sales clerk… Moro, can you draw this? Anybody else?)

Just as they have created jobs over the 9 years during which the Bush tax cuts have already been in effect, right? The nine years in which corporations have repeatedly demonstrated that they will do almost anything rather than hire American workers to work in the United States at full-time permanent jobs with health insurance and retirement benefits. If the Bush tax cuts had created jobs, there wouldn’t be 800,000 people out of work now for more than a year. Why should we expect the tax cuts to do now what they didn’t do last year or the year before?

And why, pray tell, do we accept the Republican double standard on deficit reduction? That standard dictates that all government spending for ordinary people and their families must be “paid for,” and paid for not by tax increases on anybody else, but by spending cuts on other government services to the same ordinary people. But it also dictates that tax cuts on the richest Americans do not need to be “paid for” at all, because they will by some magical process pay for themselves in jobs to be “created” from the same inanimate matter that used to create organic life in the theories of Aristotle. In short, they would have us keep two sets of books, one for the rich and one for everybody else. Each set must balance within itself, but the two need have no interaction whatever with each other, except across the celestial spark gap (see above) in which the superrich “create” jobs. My father the CPA would be aghast at this maneuver.

But there seems to be a bipartisan push to extend jobless benefits in exchange for extending the Bush tax cuts for even the richest taxpayers, and to hell with the deficit for this week anyway. Republicans and Democrats, the pro-life corporate party and the pro-choice corporate party, shoulder to shoulder against financial sanity.

Well, I gotta go. The sovereign state of Illinois has just passed a bill legitimizing civil unions for same-sex couples. The Catholic Church says this is an assault on the sacred covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, and that means I probably ought to cook dinner for Mr. Wired before our marriage falls apart altogether.

Red Emma