Monthly Archives: September 2006

Well, that’s that

The House and the Senate approved the detainee bill. Bush is expected to sign it into law this weekend. At that point, and until it is ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (which is by no means assured, given the partisanship of that body and the technicality that the only ones with the legal “standing” to challenge the new law will be those who have already been isolated from the legal system), America will be a dictatorship, with a head of government empowered to define the “enemy” as he sees fit and make any such person disappear forever with no legal remedy at all.

Thus ends the American Revolution, which began with these words defining the acts of a tyrant:

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

  • For protecting [armed forces], by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States;
  • For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury;
  • For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences;
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

Bush is now that tyrant. We’ve come full circle. Sorry, Mr. Jefferson. Sorry, General Washington. Sorry to all the soldiers and patriots who ever made a sacrifice to preserve the Constitution. It was nice while it lasted.

How much worse will it get before it gets better? History suggests it will get very, very bad. The arrogant thuggishness of the radical right is already tacitly encouraged by the establishment. We’ve seen where this kind of thing can lead before.

I am unaware of any time in history that a society has reached a point like this and then turned back. The one and only thing that’s qualitatively different today from any past slide into despotism is the existence of the Internet. If hope exists, it must lie with the Internet’s ability to keep people informed, communicating, and organized. Would the Internet have forestalled the worst excesses of Nazism? Stalinism? Impossible to say for sure, but maybe. So naturally the Internet is therefore under attack.

The candy that wouldn’t die

Who dumped a whole truckload of Fizzies into the swim meet?
— Dean Wormer, Animal House

(Sarah thought he was saying “feces.”)

Some time during the 1990’s I got word that Fizzies were being made again after some three decades of unavailability. I dimly remembered Fizzies from early childhood, when I used to mix up my own soft drinks with Fizzies tablets in my very own Fizzies Fountain. They were discontinued after health concerns arose regarding the sweetener they contained. When I heard about the reformulated version in the 90’s, naturally I ordered a large number of them in every flavor — which were all uniformly disgusting. I brought my stock of Fizzies tablets to work and shared them with a few not-very-enthusiastic colleagues.

Now they’re back again in a third incarnation. I got a shipment of the new ones on Tuesday (a small shipment — I learned my lesson last time) from Old Time Candy. They’re still pretty horrible, but not as vile as Fizzies Mark II were.

I can understand the many attempts to get Fizzies right. A portable way to create instant soda pop is somehow an extremely compelling idea. Unfortunately it seems that the presence of sodium bicarbonate in the recipe dooms it, flavor-wise; there’s no doubt you’re drinking flavored Alka-Seltzer. It may be that in order to really succeed, a Fizzies Mark IV tablet using real sugar might be called for, even if it is the size of a hockey puck (see below).

I regret I can’t recommend the new Fizzies, but I do recommend Old Time Candy, which has a wide selection of vintage candy from yesteryear, and good customer service.


Here is the e-mail message from 2003 in which I invited my co-workers to sample my surplus inventory of second-generation Fizzies.

Subject: “Hooray,” the scientist said

Live the legacy. Come get your very own piece of confection history from the 50’s and 60’s, briefly revived in the 90’s, now no longer available except from eBay and my desk.

I myself am just barely old enough to have some dim, fond memories of Fizzies from very early childhood, but be warned: after ordering a quantity of new improved Fizzies in a variety of flavors a few years ago, I tried one but couldn’t bring myself to try any of the other flavors, the first one was that vile.

Here’s an excerpt from the comically (and now, in retrospect, ironically) cheerful “Fizzies Story,” formerly at http://www.fizzies.com/fizstory.htm:

Fizzies were invented by Emerson Drug Company. The idea derived from scientists working with chemical formulas similar to “Bromo Seltzer” and wondering if a fun, fruit flavored drink could be developed the same way. “Wouldn’t it be grand if we could drop a tablet in a glass of water and have an instant soda pop?”

After long hard work, they finally figured out how to combine the right combinations of fruit flavoring, sweetener, citric acid and sodium bicarbonate (a substance that is much like baking soda) into a magical tablet that when dropped into water, turned water into an instant sparkling, effervescent fruit drink!

“Hooray,” the scientist said. “Let’s hurry and share this with others!” So in July of 1957, just in time for the hot, summer weather, Fizzies was born and appeared in various local supermarkets.

[…]

Fizzies continued to grow in the national and international markets until 1968, many times exceeding Kool-aid in sales and popularity!

But in this same year, one of the ingredients called Cyclamates, an artificial sweetener, was banned in the United States, causing hundreds of food products to be pulled from grocery shelves all across America. At that time, it was believed that products that contained this ingredient were not good for you. Once this problem arose, the scientists who had been so happy to put sparkling smiles on thousands of children’s faces, decided to voluntarily pull Fizzies from all store shelves until they were able to find a better way to sweeten them. This was important, because sugar could not be used. If Fizzies were made with real sugar, a single tablet would have to be about the size of a hockey puck!

Then one day, a group of “Baby Boomers,” who were children when Fizzies was popular and fondly remembered the fun they had with Fizzies, began a six year quest to return Fizzies to the market. Their mission? To fix the sweetener problem.

These Boomers, who had enjoyed the sparkling smiles Fizzies gave them as children, worked extra long hours for many years, but their work paid off.

Once the original formula was purchased, scientists and chemists worked around the clock until one day… HOORAY!!! The new Fizzies was developed!

It’s clear that a lack of marketing might resulted in Fizzies’ latest disappearance. Here’s the much more interesting paranoid conspiracy that resulted in Fizzies’ first demise (from http://www.acsh.org/press/editorials/sweetener082699.html):

On Oct. 18 1969, holding a can of Tab, I watched Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Robert Finch tell the nation that because the sweetener posed a risk of cancer it would be banned. Just a few days before, I had seen a Food and Drug Administration scientist on television holding up deformed, sickly chicks that had been injected with cyclamates. At the time I was pursuing a doctoral degree in public health and knew that no sweeteners or other food additives had ever been cited as a possible factor in cancer causation. Why all this attention for a phantom risk? Why were we banning safe, useful products under the guise of cancer prevention? I have pursued an answer to those questions ever since.

[…]

FDA scientist Jacqueline Verrett appeared on the “NBC Nightly News” with her cyclamate-injected, malformed chicks. (She did not mention that injections of salt, water or even air would probably have had the same effect.) A few days later the manufacturer of cyclamates, Abbott Laboratories, released a study showing that eight out of 240 rats fed a mixture of saccharin and cyclamates–at levels equivalent to humans ingesting 350 cans of diet soda per day–developed bladder tumors. Finch announced the ban shortly thereafter.

[…]

An editorial in the international medical journal Lancet noted that “never have so many pathologists been summoned to opine on so few lesions from so humble a species as the laboratory rat.” The journal Nature warned that “it would be all too easy for public apprehension to be raised to the pitch where a fever of vegetarian faddism drives everything but mothers’ milk from the market,” adding in another editorial that the evidence against cyclamates was “about as solid as candy floss.”

[Cyclamates inventor] Sveda’s obituaries said he was not bitter about the banning of cyclamates, but in fact he was. He claimed that the original FDA decision was based on a combination of bad science and “sugar politics” (he thought the sugar industry was behind the health charges against cyclamates). He accused the FDA of a “massive coverup of elemental blunders,” and believed that the American public was due an apology for withholding an alternative to sugar.

The past is dead, the future is unimaginable

One quick thought about the detainee legislation now being debated in Congress: it would give the president one of the defining powers of tyrannical dictators, namely the ability to lock up anyone he wants for as long as he wants, entirely beyond the reach of the law.

I would say I’m stunned at how rapidly we’ve arrived at a point like this, but even thinking those words, I hear the voices of millions before me echoing hollowly the same dumb astonishment when their beautiful, prosperous, enlightened countries at one time or another descended into the same unthinking darkness.

Maybe it wasn’t so rapid, either. Maybe we should have been listening to Noam Chomsky all along.

Another defining power of tyrants is to suspend or nullify elections whose outcomes they don’t like. But really, when you have the first power, you don’t need the second one. Under the law now being debated, nothing, nothing would stop President Bush if he decided to, say, imprison the next Democratic presidential candidate — or any journalist willing to convey that candidate’s message to the voting public.

If he’s not willing to go quite that far, as a backup it always helps to have the largest maker of the nation’s ballot machines in your back pocket.

Greatest hits: The Webby Awards

[Reproduced and edited from e-mail.]

In our last episode, I co-founded the Internet Movie Database. The IMDb team consisted of 15 or 20 film geeks scattered around the globe. We were a “virtual company,” coordinating all our activity via e-mail and the rare conference call. Of all the team members, I was the only one in Northern California and thus became the IMDb’s representative at the first Webby Awards ceremony in 1997.

Andrea and I prepared by shopping for new clothes; the invitation instructed us to “dress swanky.” I wrote and rehearsed an acceptance speech just in case the IMDb beat the other four sites nominated in the Film category.

The dot-com boom had not yet really begun in earnest, and so I was surprised to see that many large corporate sponsors were behind the awards ceremony; several “celebrity judges” had voted on the winners; San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was the official “welcomer”; and it was slated to be telecast on KRON, PBS, and The Discovery Channel. For a bunch of computer geeks it was an unaccustomed level of attention and glamour, but not unwelcome. With this event, the revenge of the nerds had officially begun.

When I saw all the trendy corporate sponsors with their brands emblazoned here and there at the club, I despaired of our chances of winning. I was sure that the fix was in, and only the moneyed sites would be walking away with the awards. The IMDb was strictly an enthusiast site, not part of a big media conglomerate.

We arrived at Bimbo’s 365 Club a little after 8pm. Being nominees, we were allowed to bypass the long queue of people waiting to get in. We saw a line of limousines dropping off dignitaries. Big searchlights shone upwards to mark the location of the event.

Inside, we received our “nominee” badges and drink tokens. We milled about along with a large number of trendy Multimedia Gulch folks. I’d been to Bimbo’s a few times before, but this was the first time I’d seen all the rooms of the club open and in use.

In the main room, a swing band was playing dance tunes. Andrea and I found a table and had a couple of drinks. I took a last look at my speech, which by now I had comfortably memorized.

The event began. Mayor Brown came out to say a few words about how he loved The Web magazine (which had organized the show), how proud he was that San Francisco was hosting this event, the first of its kind, and so on. He told a couple of good jokes, too, which I promptly forgot. Mayor Brown was something of a national celebrity, and in person it was easy to understand his legendary charm.

The mistress of ceremonies, columnist and playwright Cintra Wilson, then came out, made a few very funny remarks, and got the show under way. Her first rule was that, to keep things moving along, winners would be limited to an acceptance speech of no longer than five words! I tore up my speech — oh well!

There followed a rapid-fire sequence of category and nominee announcements, followed by winners and very quick acceptances. Film was the third category and the IMDb won! I ran up on stage and got a kiss and a trophy. Then I thanked our many thousands of contributors over the past seven years (in almost as many words) and ran off. It was very exciting. As I left the stage, some guy pulled me aside and told me to join the “winners’ circle” in the lounge after the ceremony.

The trophy itself was ugly as sin and tremendously heavy — cubical black base made of solid neutronium, near as I could tell, with a badly-etched plaque stuck on it and supporting a freakish oblong colored glass ovoid, which actually looked kind of cool at one point when I set it down on a table and some light came from behind it. The fifteen winners hefted their trophies around the club like Sisyphus. Some who weren’t careful enough with theirs found that the glass ovoid snapped easily off of the base.

Most of what followed was a blur because I was so thrilled at having won. I do remember the presentation for the best Sex site, though. One of the guys from Bianca’s Smut Shack who came up on stage to accept their award was wearing a Hugh Hefner style robe, smoking a pipe. Big laughs.

After the ceremony, we milled about some more and made our way to the lounge, where several camera crews were at work. Production people from various TV shows asked me to stick around so I could be interviewed. While waiting, Andrea and I met Mayor Brown. He was talking to a woman who had also won a Webby. He asked her in what category she’d won. “Politics,” she said. Mayor Brown turned to me and said, in mock confidentiality, “I want to see the people who won for their sex site!” I thought, “He’d get my vote, if I lived in San Francisco.”

Then I met an interviewer from a Web-related program on PBS. I underwent a very short interview in which I waxed enthusiastic about having won, espoused the IMDb philosophy (i.e., by film fans, for film fans), described the site, and said a few words about the team. I managed to work in much of what had been in my acceptance speech.


A still from The Internet Café

After that, there were two more interviews that were almost identical in content. One was for The Discovery Channel’s web show. The other was for C|net. The Discovery folks told me that my footage would be edited into a segment they’d already done about how the IMDb blows away the corporate movie sites. Some PC magazine reporters spoke to me too.

Andrea and I stuck around for a little while longer as the interviewing wound down and music, dancing, and drinking picked up again. Then we left, drove across town, and had a bite to eat at Mel’s Drive-In — suitable, I thought, since it was the setting for a movie (namely, American Graffiti).

It was great fun. Andrea and I resolved to embark on a career of ingratiating ourselves with politicians, celebrities, and captains of industry in order to get invited to events like this all the time. And in fact we did show up for the 1998 and 1999 Webbies…

(…to be continued…)

“Already dead” followup

The DailyKos version of my “We Are Already Dead” post garnered a handful of comments, a few of which missed my point, believing I was doing nothing more than venting despair. Obviously I wasn’t as clear as I could be, but fortunately one commenter zeroed in on the message I was trying to convey:

Like the bullshit “debate” about how much and what kind of killing makes Iraq a “civil war,” the answer to the question of how much and what kinds of totalitarianism America can embrace before it’s truly “fascist” is: it doesn’t matter.

The author provides an antidote for the despair felt by those who may believe we’re already over the edge by by posing the question: “Okay, say we are now officially a fascist state… so, what? Is that really going to change your committment to try to change things for the better?”

The fight to prevent fascism in America is over. We lost. The fight to return America from fascism begins now.

We are already dead

This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!

Face it: we’re already at fascism. If America descends further into totalitarianism, will I feel I had done enough to prevent it, or will I be like Oskar Schindler at the end of Schindler’s List, who lamented the inadequacy of his efforts even though he did more than most?

In steeling soldiers for battle, military commanders sometimes use the time-honored psych-out of convincing the troops they’re already dead. These officers know that when soldiers believe they’re already dead, even metaphorically, it helps them shed a measure of caution that can be deadly in combat — if not to the individual, then certainly to the unit. If you’re already dead, you needn’t fear death. Sometimes this psych-out is accompanied by the assertion that one may earn back one’s life only by proving one’s valor on the battlefield and crushing the enemy.

With too few exceptions, our leaders today in politics, business, and the media are fearful soldiers who do not realize we are already dead, fighting (if they fight at all) as if they still have something to protect, as if a degree of moderation will somehow avoid total disaster. Well they don’t, and it won’t. There is no cautious route to survival through this landscape. Their half-measures will avail no one. They will end in a gulag (as some of this evil regime’s political enemies already have), broken physically by their pitiless captors and psychologically by the knowledge that, when they could have done more, they didn’t.

I fret, I vote, and I write — in blogs, to my elected representatives, in letters to the editor. But I’m polite. I don’t burden others with my politics unasked. I don’t harangue my apathetic friends and family. I don’t demand action from everyone I know. I know how busy they are with important things. Things that seem important.

Is it too late to put on the brakes? Are we still sliding down the slippery slope of this well-worn historical path or have we already sailed off the precipice into thin air? And if we’re doomed to plummet all the way to the dismal bottom of this madness, will I be able to say I did all I could? Or will I be muttering in some windowless cell, “I could have passed out flyers. I ate out too much — why didn’t I donate more? I could have called some voters. I could have knocked on doors. I could have volunteered for a campaign. I could have run for office… and I didn’t. And I… I didn’t!”

We are already dead. Might as well act like it’s not too late. We have nothing to lose, it’s all already lost. Might as well fight like hell without fear. Fight to earn back our lives.

Cross-posted at http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2006/9/25/25627/9133.

Another darnedest thing

Yesterday after preschool, Jonah rattled off the list of his female classmates who routinely give him kisses, sometimes after chasing him around. Today we learned that there’s been so much kissing, the teachers have asked for it to stop. I asked him appreciatively, “Are you a ‘lover, not a fighter’?” Without missing a beat he answered, “I’m a lover and a fighter.”

I said, “The mree juffer ang flot the marr wuk.” Mree juffer! Mree juffer!

From the I’m-sure-they-meant-well department…

Just now I tried to get some online customer support for my AT&T (formerly SBC [formerly Pacbell]) DSL account. Their website invited me to try an “online chat” with a customer service agent. I gamely clicked the “chat” button and a Java applet window popped up with a text-entry area. In another part of the window I was greeted like this:

Hi Bob Glickstein. How can I assist you?

I typed, “Hi! I have been providing my own SMTP service for my domains but would like to start using an AT&T relay as a smart host (to get around some ISPs’ IP-blocks). What server address can I use and what settings (if any) do I need?”

Here’s how it appeared in the chat window after I pressed return:

HI I HV EE PRVIDIMY OWNST SERIE FRMY DMANS BU W LK T SAT UIG A A7TRELAY A ASMAR HOST 9T GETARON SME IPS I BLOCS0 WHA SETIGS CATSEVR ADDRSSCA IUEAN WHA SETIS 9I AY0 DOINED

I typed, “Whoa, wtf happened to my message?”

WOAW HPPENDT MY MESSGE

“I’ve gotten gibberish from tech support before but this is ridiculous.”

IV GTTENGBBRIS FOM TC SPPRT BEOEBU HSISRIDICULOS

The AT&T guy wrote:

Bob, I apologize, I am unable to understand your words.

I shouldn’t wonder!

As I am only able to assist you in English language.

Thanks for clearing that up. I decided to try putting a space in between each letter. “M a y b e i f I t y p e l i k e t h i s”

MA YB E I F I T YPE LIK E T HIS

“T h e w e b U I i s m a n g l i n g m y w o r d s”

THE W E B UI IS MA G L I NG MY WOR DS

“I h a v e t o p u t a s p a c e b e t w e e n e a c h l e t t e r”

I HA VE T O PUT A S PA CE BET W EE N E AC H L ETTE R

AT&T wrote:

Bob, I suggest that you restart this chat session.

“O K”

O

AT&T:

The words are really appearing as disturbed.

No kidding. Clicking the “hang up” icon to end the session didn’t work. I dismissed the window and went back through the website to launch a new chat but was placed into the same session, with the same bug. A bit more hilarity ensued (of the rapidly diminishing kind) and then I tried to tell the guy “This is the most broken thing I have ever used,” “I give up,” and “Thanks anyway.”

TH M OST BR O TG I HV EVER U
GI U
THS WA

Though it prevented me from doing what I wanted to do, I can still admire this bug for the impressively gigantic fuck-up it is. I can’t help but wonder if AT&T’s customer support tool was written by disgruntled post-merger SBC or Pacbell engineers in a kind of removing the W’s moment.

Mohammed meets mountain

It’s not clear which of us is the mountain and which is Mohammed, nor who came to whom — Ken came to my metropolitan area, but I then had to take the ferry to where he was. At any rate, Ken Jennings and I met briefly last night at Book Passage in San Francisco, where he signed my copy of Brainiac. (He recognized my name from his message forums and wrote me a classy inscription: “I’d add a movie quote but you’d probably catch a misquote.”) Andrea and the kids were in tow and Andrea was doing a yeoman’s job of keeping them contained while allowing me to sit through Ken’s pre-signing talk and then wait in line, but by the time I got to the front of the line, Jonah- and Archer-created chaos exploded through the store and I didn’t have time for more than a few words with Ken. In fact I only heard part of what Ken said to me, and Andrea heard the other part; we pieced it together later.


It only looks like a scene from “Polite Mormon meets Obnoxious Jew.”

The thesis of Ken’s short talk was that he doesn’t consider “trivia” to be trivial at all, and he made a case for trivia being a kind of glue holding society together. He also mentioned that he met his wife thanks to trivia (kinda like methat’s eight!) when he knew what came next after some particular movie quote.

…Which reminds me of a story. At the beginning of my freshman year at college I didn’t know a soul and briefly contemplated pledging a fraternity. One night, one of the frats had a Repo Man rush party, but to get in you had to be a girl or invited — or so two frat brothers told me when I knocked on the frat-house door. As I was about to turn away, one of them added, “Unless you can complete this quote: ‘Find one in every car…’” I promptly supplied, “You’ll see,” and was admitted.

The party was kinda cool. Pine tree air fresheners were hung everywhere. There were cans of “FOOD” and (of course) “BEER.” The pool table in the basement had been converted into a phosphorescent Chevy Malibu. Quotes from the movie were plastered all over the walls. (One of them became the basis for the name of my next car, the “Plate-O-Shrimp” [or in the words of my sister Suzanne, the “Piece-O-Shit.”]) But frat life clearly wasn’t for me and thereafter I went about making plenty of good friends all on my own.