18 January 2011

Powerful stuff

Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech is full of poetry, metaphor, and allusion. Twice King quotes Scripture.

Amos 5:21-24 is one of the few places in the whole Bible where God is actually said to hate anything. It is nonetheless my favorite passage in the entire Old Testament, the one that I think comes closest to reconciling fire and brimstone with love and mercy. The verse King quotes comes rather unexpectedly in the middle of an angry prophetic tirade:

I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer up to me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

King is never angry, but at this point in his speech he is firm, insistent, even stern, and so his use of this verse at the end echoes Amos slightly. It’s an artful touch and a little brilliant.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Isaiah 40:3-5 says:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

King adopts this as his ultimate dream.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

As King quotes this—there is no sugar-coating this—he teeters on the verge of nonsense. Not only is this prophecy already supposedly fulfilled (in John the Baptist, according to the gospels, all four of which directly quote it), but right after this passage about mountains being leveled, King is about to go into a series of riffs about, well, mountains (“let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire” and so on).

It works anyway, because whatever we think of the gospels, it is manifest that some crooked paths remain that want straightening, and rough places, and all the rest. King’s message is that justice will not be denied. Scripture promises the dream will be fulfilled.

13 January 2011

Dangerous eggs

Among the dangerous contraband items U.S. border officials look for when they search your car are Kinder Surprise candy eggs. The CBC has an account of one seizure. Punchline:

As trivial as the border seizure may seem, Bird said the U.S. government has sent her a seven-page letter asking her to formally authorize the destruction of her seized Kinder egg.

“I thought it was a joke. I had to read it twice. But they are serious,” she said.

The letter states if Bird wishes to contest the seizure, she’ll have to pay $250 for it to be stored as the two sides wrangle over it.

The overbearing threats, the lawyerly paperwork, the sheer pointlessness of it all—it’s like a portrait in miniature of U.S. law enforcement. It’s so poetic I could cry.

I think my view of government is getting warped. Every senseless indignity is starting to look less like random incompetence and more like a dominance display.

11 January 2011

Wikileaks, journalism, and espionage

WOLF: Jeff, can I talk about the Espionage Act because that's really what's at stake now that they've invoked it. I predicted in my book The End of America that sooner or later, journalists would be targeted with the Espionage Act in an effort to close down free speech and (INAUDIBLE) of government. And we have a precedent for that. In 1917, the Espionage Act was invoked to go after people like us who were criticizing the first World War. Publishers, educators, editors. Wait, and people were put in prison. They were beaten. One guy got a 10-year sentence for reading the First Amendment. And that intimidation effectively closed down dissent for a decade in the United States of America.

The Espionage Act has a very dark and dirty history. And when you start to use the Espionage Act, to criminalize what—I'm sure you've handled classified documents in your time as a serious journalist, you know perfectly well that every serious journalist has seen or heard about classified information and repeated it. When you start to use the Espionage Act to say reporting is treachery, reporting is spying, it's espionage, you criminalize journalism. And that's the history that our country has shown.

TOOBIN: I recognize there is that history. And I'm familiar with the red scare, too. America is different now.

WOLF: Oh, it's worse in some ways.

TOOBIN: Well, I would disagree.

SPITZER: I want to ask Jeff a question though, because I want to come back to this Woodward distinction. You would agree with Clay and Naomi, I think, that Julian Assange would be precisely Bob Woodward if he had been the recipient of these documents, is that correct?

TOOBIN: I'd have to know a lot more.

SPITZER: But it might be the case.

TOOBIN: It well might be the case.

SPITZER: OK. So your sort of clear articulation of the beginning that he clearly violated something—maybe not so much.

TOOBIN: I'm not sure. Certainly the attorney general of the United States seems to think criminal—criminal activity was involved here. But I think the wholesale taking of enormous quantities of classified information and putting it on the Internet, even if you don't put all 250,000 documents on, I think that is a meaningful distinction from what Bob Woodward does.

SPITZER: It seems to me that Bob Woodward arguably did something much more egregious. He took real-time decisions about why we were going to war in Afghanistan, the discussions are rationale, where we would go, spoke to the most senior political and military officials in the nation and blasted that out in the book. A clear distinction.

TOOBIN: Well, again, there is a distinction in part because the president of the United States and the vice president are allowed to declassify anything they want at any time for any reason. So if the president declassified—

SPITZER: A lot of people who didn't have that power were sourced in that book. Seemed to be speaking in clear violation. They, in fact, should be subject to criminal investigations.

TOOBIN: I always wondered why—why Woodward gets away with it. It's an interesting question.


—Naomi Wolf, Jeff Toobin, and Eliot Spitzer, talking on CNN's Parker Spitzer December 23, 2010. (transcript)

(Sidebar: Toobin was either indulging in a little hyperbole, or he was under the impression that all the cables were released unredacted. Not that it makes a huge difference, but this is not what happened. Wikileaks has been working with five newspapers, including the New York Times, to redact the cables before they are released publicly. As of January 10, 2011, Wikileaks has released only 2,028 of the 251,287 cables. They have been releasing a few each day.)

When Dianne Feinstein called for Julian Assange's prosecution under the Espionage Act, she wrote:

Mr. Assange claims to be a journalist and would no doubt rely on the First Amendment to defend his actions. But he is no journalist: He is an agitator intent on damaging our government, whose policies he happens to disagree with, regardless of who gets hurt.

But what exactly is Assange or Wikileaks doing that investigative journalists do not do? Cultivating contacts with privileged access? Obtaining classified documents? Reading them? Publishing them? Refusing to reveal sources? Pushing an agenda? Trying to make a difference? Those are all things journalists do. It is arguably impossible to do the job right without doing those things.

Why does Bob Woodward get away with it?

Why indeed.

Things I learned recently

Handmade paper does not have a grain. The fibers stretch out in random directions. But factory-made paper uses a process where water flows across the surface of the paper as it forms. Take any sheet of printer paper and you'll find that you can curl up the long vertical edge over using less force than the shorter horizontal edge. Even though you're bending more paper the long way, you're bending fewer of the paper's fibers by going with the grain.

According to the Wikipedia article on shmoon, “The word ‘shmoo’ has appeared in nearly 700 science publications since 1974; it is used in labs studying the bread-and beer-making species Saccharomyces cerevisiae.”

The geoid is the shape of the mean sea level of the earth. It is not an ellipsoid. Gravitational forces due to variations in the earth's density subtly distort the geoid. This is why a GPS device can tell you you're 20 meters underwater when you're at the beach: GPS measures your altitude above a reference ellipsoid, not the true geoid. The difference can be much greater in magnitude than the tides.