Thursday, December 31, 2009

the destruction of Prophet Muhammad's house, and bonus links

From The Honorable Birth Place of the Prophet:
To safeguard human heritage Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “do not demolish old buildings; for they are the ornament of the city.”

When they demolished the rooms the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) used in Medina Saeed bin Naseeb – may Allah have mercy on him – said, "By Allah I wished they had left it alone, so that the new generation in Medina and those visiting, will see what the Prophet (pbuh) was satisfied with in his life, which would have caused people to become frugal, and abandon the accumulation of wealth and showing off."
From 2005: The destruction of Mecca: Saudi hardliners are wiping out their own heritage

From 2008: Saudis demolish remains of the Prophet's Home

via DOSELLE: Interesting PROJECT ON COLORISM (discrimination in the African American community based on skin tone) @" and "ONE OF MY FAVORITE PICTURES of MYTHICAL LOS ANGELES:"

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

the shoes of the fisherman



links of the day

In search of the world’s hardest language. Nice overview on what makes different languages "hard." Their proposal for the hardest language has a feature I admire: accountability; your statement includes information about whether you know something firsthand or by hearsay. (Link via Bill Colsher. Thanks!)

For All Things Celtic: Lisa Spangenberg's Celtic Studies Resources

on the list of self-published bestsellers: Spartacus

Fast wrote a foreword for the new edition that's only a couple of pages long and includes details about Cold War repression that I hadn't known or had forgotten: Spartacus and the Blacklist. (Just scroll down a couple of pages when you get there.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

putting the Manhattan income numbers in perspective

The US per capita income as of the last census: $21,587.

As Wikipedia notes: "Per capita income gives no indication of the distribution of that income within the country, so a small wealthy class can increase the measured per-capita income far above that of the majority of the population. "

US citizens, help elect a Navajo for AZ Secretary of State

I just sent a few bucks to this guy:

December 29, 2009

Dear Friend,
I am writing to you as the first ever Native American to formally explore a run for statewide office in Arizona.  In our way, I am Todichiini (Bitter Water People) and born for Deschiini (Start of the Red Streak People). 
I am exploring a run for Secretary of State because I believe our state needs to change more than its leaders at the Capitol; Arizona needs to change its direction.
There are only three days left until the filing deadline of midnight on December 31st and I need your help.
As a State Representative from Northern Arizona I have been saddened and angered by the unreasonable minds who have taken our state backwards in education and in providing basic social services to vulnerable families.
But we know that real change never comes from just one candidate or just one person, it comes when people of all backgrounds are engaged in the political process.  If I am Secretary of State, encouraging that involvement will be my mission.  
Please help our effort right now with a contribution of $20, $50, $100 or whatever you can afford and visit our website where you can read more and sign up to volunteer.  That web address
Á’shoo’dí, shí’ká’a’doo’ja. (I respectfully ask for your help)


Chris Deschene
State Representative, District 2

PS – We know that nothing will get better at the capitol if we simply leave it alone.  Please support our effort and help change Arizona’s direction for the better. 
Requirements for donating:
I confirm that the following statements are true and accurate.
I am a United States citizen or a permanent resident alien.
This contribution is made from my own funds, and funds are not being provided to me by another person or entity for the purpose of making this contribution.
I am making this contribution with my own personal credit card and not with a corporate or business credit card or a card issued to another person.
I am not a federal contractor.
I am at least eighteen years old.

a Gahan Wilson cartoon

via Chris McLaren

Monday, December 28, 2009

the fastest way to see class dynamics in New York City

From here:

Average Per Capita Income - New York
New York Metro: $45,382
Bronx: $24,631
Brooklyn: $30,023
Manhattan: $110,292
Queens: $33,743
Staten Island: $40,311

some thoughts about editing and being edited

I'm cleaning out old files, and I came on this, something I started and abandoned for reasons I don't remember. It's rough, but there might be a useful bit or two in it:

I've spent the last two days giving comments on a novel and two stories, so editing is on my mind. What follows is based on some correspondence from that:

In our time editing and teaching, Emma and I have found three kinds of writers: ones who balk at any suggestion, ones who accept most suggestions, and ones who engage in the revision process, weighing each possibility and often finding solutions that are much better than our quick suggestion. Writers in the second and third groups may first spend a day or two savaging voodoo dolls made to resemble us, but if so, they hide that well.

All three groups include writers we admire beyond measure and writers that we think, well, tell entertaining tales with functional prose. I think the first group, the writers who balk at suggestions, believe the story that leaves their home is the platonic tale, the gift of the muse, the thing wrestled from dream, the creation that was not but is now.

And sometimes they're right.

And, more importantly, when they're wrong, it's still their story.

As editors, when writers accept few or none of our suggestions, we don't get upset. It's their name on the story. We simply ask ourselves if the story works well enough as it is, and then we buy it or we don't.

I understand hating being edited. When I give a story to someone for suggestions, I want to be told that my best effort is perfect. I don't want to hear that it could be bester. For most sorts of suggestions, I curse a little—especially when I think an editor is making a suggestion about style rather than story or grammar or clarity. One editor, who I still love, likes sentences that start with gerunds and would always propose them. I think that construction is as phony as a neocon, so I would glare at those, then decide which ones were harmless and which ones bugged me most, and make the call.

I may be blessed with one quirk when being edited: I never mind suggestions that I cut something. For me, that's not changing the story. That's getting rid of something that's not the story. For writers in the first group, the story is the words: lose a word, and the story is weaker.

I think the story is beneath the words, so I want to cut anything that says, "Look! Here's the story!" I happily strike out explanations and foreshadowings because I hate anything that smells of helping the reader. As a writer, I want these things to be implied by the dialogue or the actions. I don't want them hinted at in the narrative.

This is my hierarchy when cutting: when actions speak clearly, cut dialogue. When dialogue speaks clearly, cut thoughts. Tell as little as possible so the story can tell itself. In my platonic tale, the writer simply tells what happens, or the narrator tells the story to the best of his or her ability, and the reader than laughs or cries in recognition of the story's truth.

Yes, there's a lot of wiggle-room when a story has an implied or explicit narrator who isn't the author. But I'm never afraid to contradict myself. The ultimate writing advice is simply this: Do what's necessary.

As an editor or a teacher, whenever I suggest anything, I'm only suggesting what I would do, not what I think someone else must do. Too many people think what they would do is the only solution. The world has many right solutions that are missed by people with binary philosophies.

a letter written in 2004

Will's note: The following letter was written by my father to my brother. Dad was in El Salvador, living on a small sailboat named Vaya; so far as we know, he's the oldest man to have sailed solo around the world. Mike was a trucker then, living in New Mexico. His daughter served as a Marine in Iraq for a year, and her husband, also a Marine, was serving there then. Dad didn't intend for this letter to be public, but Mom sent me a copy, and I think it's too good to keep private.

April 13, 2004

Dear Mike,

While I strongly disagree with your view of Bush and his war, this letter is in no way intended to influence your opinion. I take a perverse pride in having children who disagree--it's a Shetterly trait.

My concern is the upcoming election, which is already turning nasty, and I fear that old ugly question, "Why does your family not support the US and/or US troops?" will again be asked, and should some jerk ask you that question, I want you to have enough family history to give them a proper answer.

In WW2, your mother joined the US Navy. Her father enlisted in WWI and received a commendation for setting up and maintaining supplies at the base hospital in France. All four Shetterly boys volunteered. Howard was killed in the Air Force. Harry was a combat medic in some of Europe's worst fighting. I was the youngest member of my high school graduation class (16), yet the only one to earn a combat ribbon--although the combat did not amount to much, and after I learned what Harry had gone through to earn his, I never wore mine. Ben joined the Navy after the war.

I also reluctantly approved of the first war against Iraq. The UN voted approval, and it had widespread support in the world. The Vietnam War is another matter--no UN approval, and as it went on and on, it was clearly the wrong war in the wrong place for the wrong reasons.

Will was with me at many of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and I think he has a fair understanding of both my opposition to that particular war and my opposition to the treatment demonstrators often heaped on Vietnam veterans. I spoke against this treatment, often and strongly. One of my better friends at the University of Florida was an Army captain with two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was on detached duty to complete his university degree. We disagreed on many aspects of the war, but as friends.

For me, Bush's war has three things in common with Vietnam: 1. It is not supported by the UN, and the world's opinion is strongly opposed. 2. Its causes are far from clear. There is no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, or of terrorist attacks against the US by Iraq. 3. The US government told lie after lie to promote the war. A fourth is simply my opinion, belief, that both wars are harmful to the US's best interests. Terrorism is a matter for police and public policy, not war, which only creates recruits for terrorists.

To end on a personal note: After WW2, I sailed around the world, to Europe and South America, and everywhere, the US flag and US passport were welcomed with open arms. Sadly, this is no longer the case. I still carry a US passport, but never use it. Vaya is US registered and should fly the US flag, but it improperly flies the maple leaf. [Dad has been both a US and a Canadian citizen since the 1970s.]

There is no way to say it without sounding melodramatic, but to see how, in fifty years, the US has fallen from being perhaps the world's most respected and beloved country to its present state of being perhaps the most hated is for me a heartrending experience, almost like a death in the family.

To repeat, this letter is not addressed to your views, but to the anti-US question if it arises. Abraham Lincoln opposed the Mexican War and I never heard him called anti-US--and I do not think an honest, objective view of Shetterly family history supports an anti-US view--and I hope you are quick to point this out, supported by this family history.

Your Dad

P.S. El Salvador is a pro-US country. The US dollar is the official currency. Half the boats here are US, and not one is flying the US flag. With one exception, all the other boats fly their country's flag.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

a new Shadow Unit story

Sarah Monette's "On Faith" is a standalone story, and one of my favorites, so if you haven't tried Shadow Unit yet, it might be a fine place to start.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

learning ukulele

If I ever am half as good as this kid, I'll post a video:

I'm Yours(ukulele)

He's one of the many students of Ukulele Mike. I plan to be another.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

an old American joke about class and capitalism (via Mark Twain)

In Boston they ask, How much does he know? in New York, How much is he worth? in Philadelphia, Who were his parents?

Q. of the Day

What Spanish books, movies, TV shows, web sites, or videos would you recommend to someone who wants to become fluent in Spanish? Feel free to answer here or at la pregunta del día.

ETA: Or music! And "books" definitely includes comics!

Great minds think alike

"Great minds think alike." Anonymous.

An older version was "Good wits jump," from "Good wits doe iumpe," which appears as early as 1618. Jump meant "come together", a meaning that must've been lost soon after the saying was coined. A later version was "Good wits jump together."

Voltaire expressed something similar, "les beaux esprits se rencontrent", which could be translated as "Good minds meet."

The full versions of "Great minds think alike" are "Great minds think alike, but fools seldom differ," and "Great minds think alike, as do lesser ones."

Albert Einstein has his take: "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." I won't quibble with that.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Learn Spanish with me!

I'm starting a new blog: Learn Spanish with me! It's going to be about my process of learning Spanish. For today, there's a little about a proverb, "Every pig has its Saint Martin."

¡Feliz Solsticio!

Having flirted with conlangs for a few days, I think I'll work instead on becoming truly bilingual in Spanish. (I took a little French in college and spent a semester in France, but my French is no better than mi pobre Español, and it's a long drive to Quebec from Tucson, so Spanish wins.)

Also, French is a beautiful language with a great culture, but it's not even in the world's top ten, where Spanish is giving English a tough run for the number two slot.

Since I'm giving up on conlangs for now, here's an excellent reason to make Spanish the world's auxlang: It's much easier to learn than Chinese or English.

things to consider when thinking about the next world language

According to The language revolution by David Crystal, Spanish is the world's fastest-growing mother tongue.

Here are the top 11 Most Widely Spoken Languages (1996)
    language(in millions)
     1. Chinese, MandarinBrunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Singapore, S. Africa, Taiwan, Thailand1120
     2. EnglishAustralia, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, The Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, India, Ireland, Israel, Lesotho, Liberia, Malaysia, Micronesia, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, S. Africa, Suriname, Swaziland, Tonga, U.K., U.S., Vanuatu, Zimbabwe, many Caribbean states, Zambia.480
     3. SpanishAlgeria, Andorra, Argentina, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Chad, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Rep., Ecuador, El Salvador, Eq. Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Niger, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Togo, Tunisia, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela.332
     4. ArabicEgypt, Sudan, ALgeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Lybia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, UAE, Oman, Iraq, Lebanon235
     5. BengaliBangladesh, India, Singapore189
     6. HindiIndia, Nepal, Singapore, S. Africa, Uganda182
     7. RussianBelarus, China, Estonia, Georgia, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, U.S., Uzbekistan180
     8. PortugueseAngola, Brazil, Cape Verde, France, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, São Tomé and Príncipe170
     9. JapaneseJapan, Singapore, Taiwan125
     10. GermanAustria, Belgium, Bolivia, Czech Rep., Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Paraguay, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Switzerland98
    11. Chinese, WuChina77.2

Sunday, December 20, 2009

a couple of Esperanto videos

Mondo, English subtitles from Enrique Andrés on Vimeo.

Bebo parolas en Esperanto

Both via the Blogo

Learn NOT to speak Esperanto?

Learn NOT to speak Esperanto is an amusing rant about Esperanto's shortcomings. Worth reading just for the introduction. And the appendix about sexism is also good. I wonder if the same writer has said anything about Mondlango.

ETA: Claude Piron answered that with J. B. Rye's misrepresentation of Zamenhof's language.

More on the search for an International auxiliary language (IAL)

Esperanto, born in the 1870s, had problems that quickly became obvious. Its inventer, Zamenhof, reluctantly proposed revisions in 1894 that his followers rejected. It's a shame they did: Esperanto might have grown from Old Esperanto to Middle Esperanto to Modern Esperanto in a few decades, and we would all be learning Esperanto in elementary school today.

Esperanto's problems include an alphabet with unique characters and a gendered grammar that, if you're charitable, is quaintly old-fashioned but, if you're blunt, is sexist. I can't imagine it being accepted as an International auxiliary language (IAL) without addressing those flaws.

Alas, Esperantists may have killed all hope of progress for Esperanto in 1905 with a declaration that stated, among other things, that the basis of the language should remain the Fundamento de Esperanto ("Foundation of Esperanto", a group of early works by Zamenhof), which is to be binding forever: nobody has the right to make changes to it.

Esperantists today seem to be divided between Raumists (who promote Esperanto as a language and culture deserving of respect for its own sake) and Finkavists (who promote Zamenhof's dream of Esperanto as the world's IAL).

Because conservatives blocked reform of Esperanto, IAL liberals moved their allegiance to  Ido, a major tweaking of Esperanto that still has advocates. But many Ido supporters moved on to Interlingua, which takes a different approach (see Comparison between Esperanto and Interlingua). From Interlingua's Wikipedia page:
...its vocabulary, grammar and other characteristics are largely derived from natural languages. Interlingua was developed to combine a simple, mostly regular grammar with a vocabulary common to the widest possible range of languages, making it unusually easy to learn, at least for those whose native languages were sources of Interlingua's vocabulary and grammar. Conversely, it is used as a rapid introduction to many natural languages. Interlingua is also unusual for being immediately understandable to hundreds of millions of people who speak a Romance language.
Interlingua would be a great IAL for Europeans, Quebecers, and Central and South Americans, but it's not so useful for Asians, Africans, and English-speakers because it's not as simple as Esperanto, Ido, or Mondlango (the best proposal for an IAL today, IMHO).

Strongly recommended reading: History of Esperanto, a short Wikipedia article that has some charming details about Zaminhof, and a little about Hitler, Stalin, and the Cold War U.S.A. being suspicious of IAL supporters.

A link for Emma: Interlingua and the Man From U.N.C.L.E.

ETA: Robb Kvasnak and His Argument For Esperanto

Saturday, December 19, 2009

liking Mondlango

Since writing L.L. Zamenhof: Who He Was, Why He's on Google and Homaranismo and conlangs, I've gotten a bit obsessed about language as a way to world peace. I always thought Esperanto was cool, but its time had passed. I'm not so sure of that now, but I think Mondlango should be the focus of all fans of a worldwide second language, and its time is now. Here's why:

1. The world is in transition between two world languages, English and Chinese. Both are very hard for non-native speakers to learn (and not all that easy for native speakers who believe there is a "correct" form of their language). This is a perfect time to push for an alternative that's far, far easier to learn than either.

2. Mondlango was created primarily by Chinese thinkers who built on Esperanto (a primarily European conlang) while recognizing the importance and usefulness of English in the world today. It is the most international conlang that I know of.

The "official"* Mondlango site is a good place to start your googling.

* From here:
Strictly speaking, in the realm of Monda, there are founders and followers, but there is no creator. Most vocabularies in Monda are not arbitrarily created, but are derived from the Indo-European language family (especially from English ). Zamenhof , being the author of Esperanto, was also the vanguard of Monda. Monda was born in July 2002. The major founder of Monda is HeYafu, the other founders are Wangli, Qijiaqin, Luoxinxing, Arbsemo, Kulturo, Chenruihua , Zangyuhai, Niyundong, Zhaozhonghua, Oscar Mifsud , David Curtis , Dominique Kuster , Matthew Martin, J Duke and Daniel Carrera.

The language challenge -- facing up to reality

Q. of the Day

Is there any evidence that "hate crime" laws are effective?

Funny of the Day

Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World

Friday, December 18, 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

my kind of Christian

From Stand up for “christmas”?
Let’s start rating companies on whether they DO Christ-like things, rather than on whether the under-paid clerk says “Merry Christmas” as you’re checking out.

Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.
~ Amos 5:23-24

The godly care about the rights of the poor; the wicked don’t care at all.
~ Proverbs 5:7

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.
~James 1:27

You know what offends me? It’s not whether someone says “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”. It’s when I read that  L.L. Bean, Pier 1, and Walmart are known to be actively and intentionally using slave labor in their products. I don’t give a shit how many “Merry Christmas” signs they have in their store, as if that makes one flying fuck’s worth of difference when they are participating in the enslavement of women, men, and children who are created in the image of God. Focus on the Family gives them 12-14% offensive ratings, and 52-71% friendly ratings. No mention of child slavery. No mention of beating or firing workers trying to unionize to protect themselves. No mention of the workers who have died at the factory making the cheap furniture you bought at Ikea. How does “Standing for Christmas” have ANYTHING to do with Christ?

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
and in his name all oppression shall cease.
~ “O Holy Night”, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, 1847
The sent me looking for a good version of "O Holy Night." I found Weezer's, but I like this better:

my take on US health care reform

Pass the current bill. Start on the next one in January.

Slouching Toward Health Care Reform asks two essential questions: "Why hasn't Reid forced much of the bill into reconciliation, requiring only 51 votes? Why has the President been so cowed?"

oh, no! someone gave me 12 months of LiveJournal!

Anonymous giver, thank you!

This means I'll go back to cross-posting everything from my main blog to LJ. So if you're currently following my LJ feed, itsallonething, please follow willshetterly instead, where I'll be sure to see your comments.

Don't blame me. Blame the giver.

P.S. Posts from my main blog are automatically forwarded to FaceBook (willshetterly) and Twitter (willshetterly).


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Experimental Psychology - Change Blindness

Experimental Psychology - Change Blindness
via Making Light

Homaranismo and conlangs

Dear Esperantists, what's the noun for a believer in homaranismo? I like it a lot. I've always wanted to be able to say I'm a humanist, but that word has been claimed by adamant atheists and others, so it's really not useful. But being able to say I'm a homaranist (?) might be handy.

Googling "homaranismo" brought me to a nice essay about Esperanto, The Inner Idea. Then thinking about invented languages took me to Constructed languages. The goal of conlanguists makes so much sense. Alas, humans don't do sense.

Still, the UN really should adopt a conlang. Which one, I dunno. I like Esperanto because it's the best known and it's explicitly public domain...which explains the strength of its offshoot, Mondlango. Based on the tiny bit I've read about Zamenhof, he would be delighted to have any more useful branch of Esperanto, or any conlang, take its place.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

L.L. Zamenhof: Who He Was, Why He's on Google

L.L. Zamenhof: Who He Was, Why He's on Google:
Importantly, a few years after he had fine-tuned his language, Zamenhof gave up control of it to its users.

"Zamenhof looked up recent cases of [attempts at creating artificial languages] and he saw that the fatal flaw in these projects was their inventors kept grasping their own languages and trying to control and modify them, which created a lot of animosity among its speakers," Pool said.

for Hanukkah: "Sometimes A Little Light Can Be Enough" by Bob Franke

"Sometimes A Little Light Can Be Enough" by Bob Franke

more about Peter Watts

Chris McLaren has a good roundup of links here. I especially recommend this comment that he found in the BoingBoing thread.

Monday, December 14, 2009

a follow up to a note about sex for young readers of my blog

From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

Thanks, aspyre!

a note about sex for young readers of my blog

I often forget that some readers of my blog are young. I was extremely touched the other day when I got a comment from a 13-year-old. Later, after I made the post about porn, it occurred to me that she might read it, and I felt a little embarrassed, because I'm an old-fashioned guy in many ways.

But I assume that anyone who can surf the web knows what's on it. If you're old enough to be interested in sex, you're old enough to be thinking about what's responsible and what's not.

I have three pieces of advice about sexual activity:

1. Be sure you like and trust anyone you're with.

2. Be sure anyone you're with likes and respects you.

3. Don't do anything that makes you uncomfortable. You have the right to say "no" at any time. Anyone who does not respect that does not respect you.

That should be obvious advice, but a lot of people get hurt because they don't stick to those principles.

wayside quotations

Via The original Twitter, Unitarian Universalist version, some Wayside quotations:
Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is. —Anonymous

Let yourself and not your words preach for you. —Henri Frederic Amiel

So do your work in the world that others may do their work better. —Felix Adler

Stand and silently watch the world go by—and it will. —Anonymous

The workshop of character is everyday life. —Anonymous
There are more here. Hard to a pick a favorite from them. Maybe it's "Because I have been athirst, I will dig a well that others may drink." —Arabian proverb

ETA: Or maybe "Forgiveness is the final form of love." —Reinhold Niebuhr

Or maybe "Love is a faith, and one faith leads to another." —Henri Frederic Amiel

Sunday, December 13, 2009

three thoughts about porn, and a video (not porn!)

1. Porn is capitalist sex. (So is prostitution, but that's another rant.)

2. Porn is to sex as kung fu movies are to fighting: a specific example may be good or bad, but the genre has little to teach us about living in the world.

3. The difference between porn and erotica is the difference between stories about sex and violence and stories about love and death—in the latter, there are implicit or explicit consequences of actions.

The following is from a TED talk. I generally don't like TED talks; they're made for the privileged and often feel like the modern equivalent of performances for princes, but some of them still manage to say important things, and this is one of those:

Bonus: How not to make love like a porn star:
You know what description you never want a woman you've slept with to apply to your sexual technique? "Baffling."

Confessions of a Detected Liar

I wrote this ten or fifteen years ago as an article that I hoped to sell. Either I sent it to Newsweek, then forgot it, or I didn't get around to researching markets. Peter Watts' border adventures reminded me of it:

Confessions of a Detected Liar

by Will Shetterly

Don't trust me; I can't pass a lie detector test.

Like most people, I believed polygraphs were usually accurate. They call them lie detectors, right? The polygraph industry thrives on the promise behind that popular tag for their machines: they detect lies and liars.

I lost my faith in polygraphs in 1981. My fiancee and I had visited my family in Canada and were returning to the US. A customs agent searched the car, as almost always happened when I, then a young guy who looked a bit hip, crossed the border. The agent looked under the passenger seat, frowned, and showed me a small block of hashish in Saran wrap.

He asked if I knew what it was. I suspected I did--I grew up in the '60s and '70s, after all. But I couldn't be sure, so I reached for it to take a better look. When he jerked it away before I touched it, I realized I was in trouble.

I had no idea how the hashish had gotten there. I was driving my parents' car; I knew the hashish couldn't belong to them. I had lost interest in recreational drugs years earlier. I didn't think it could belong to my fiancee, yet there it was.

I soon found out how much trouble I was in. Taking drugs across the border is a federal offense. This was before the RICO laws went into effect, so the police didn't seize my parents' car, but my fiancee and I were both strip-searched. As the driver, I was presumed responsible, even though the hashish was under the passenger seat.

My parents hired a lawyer, who told us that the charges would be dropped if I passed a polygraph. So I went down to the police station a few weeks later, took a polygraph test, and left confident that this was all over. Shortly after, I learned I had failed the test.

I was baffled. I briefly wondered if the hashish was mine and my mind was playing tricks on me. There was the evidence, after all: the lie detector had told me, and the world, that I had lied. Fortunately, my parents still trusted me, though modern science told them not to. They continued to spend money on the lawyer.

Wanting to understand what had gone wrong with the polygraph, I decided to hire a private operator to give me a second test. Somewhere in my files, I still have the letter from him. He said that my test showed evidence of an intent to deceive.

At this point, I began to research polygraphs. I learned that its critics think the test is wrong as often as half of the time—it's no better than guesswork. Its defenders, including the American Polygraph Association, think polygraphs have an 85-95% accuracy rate.

Before I was tested, if you'd asked me how accurate polygraphs are, I probably would've offered a percentage close to that. Ninety-five per cent sounds pretty good, if you don't think about it. But who among us would risk our reputation for honesty on a test that's wrong at least one time out of twenty?

The answer is that many of us are forced to. Look in the yellow pages under "lie detection services" (there's no category for the more accurate "polygraph services") and you'll find a thriving business catering to civil, criminal, business, and domestic investigations. Want to know if someone is embezzling, taking drugs, or sleeping around? Like psychics, phrenologists, and others who claim that their profitable business is a science, polygraph artists promise an easy answer. And, like most easy answers, it's often a wrong one. People unjustly lose jobs, lovers, and reputations every day, thanks to polygraph tests.

For me, there was a happy ending. A friend of the family had lost the hashish several months before my arrest when she was riding in my parents' car. She did not come forward immediately because she thought she had lost it while playing volleyball, not while riding to the game, and she thought I had been arrested for having marijuana, not hashish. When she realized the truth, she told us, we consulted with the lawyers, and the following was worked out:

Our friend gave a full report of the incident to the Ontario Provincial Police. Because the hashish was not found in Ontario, the O.P.P. did not charge her. The O.P.P. sent a copy of their report to the prosecutor in the U.S. That report was accepted, and the charges against me were dropped. My fiancee and I got married, and I suppose it was a happy ending for everyone, if you don't count the four thousand dollars or so spent on my defense. That, I suppose, was part of the happy ending for the lawyer.

But I was one of the lucky ones. Without our friend's statement, I would have been convicted. The hashish was in my car, after all. My only defense was my word. And the judge, prosecutor, and defender all knew the polygraph test showed I lie.

Will Shetterly is a novelist. But since he can't pass a lie detector test, you might want to go to the bookstore and verify that for yourself.

ETA: Possibly of interest:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

a little about border guards and Peter Watts

Sometimes border guards take the job because they like going through people's underwear. Sometimes it's the only job in the area with decent pay and benefits. Sometimes they believe they're helping protect their nation.

I've been crossing the US-Canadian border for five decades because my family comes from northern Minnesota, and my parents and sister became Canadian citizens in the '80s. My experiences with Canadian guards were usually good—even when I was a young hippie who looked like the enemy of all they stood for. My experiences with American guards were usually bad—even when I became a middle-aged, conventionally dressed and coiffed fellow who drove cars that had been made within the last few years.

There were two good crossings into the US that I remember. Both were at small stations, which tend to be more pleasant than big ones. At the first, I declared a 100-pound bag of wild rice that had been given to me by my family, who were buying wild rice from Ojibwe people in northern Ontario. The guard asked, "Is that for personal use?" with a straight face. I said "Yes," and maybe I added something about the family, and we both kind of smiled, and he waved me through. He understood stocking up on the good stuff.

The other time, Emma and I mentioned we had been to a convention because we're science fiction writers. The guard had worked with Jack McDevitt, one of many people who demonstrate that you can be a customs guard and a damn fine person.

But it is always best to assume that people with authority are power-mad half-wits who will happily squash you like a bug given the least opportunity. Be very polite to them, and make no sudden moves, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

As for Peter Watts, his only mistake was being a Canadian who did not realize he had entered a third-world nation whose citizens are expected to cower before authority.

ETA: Just to make this clearer: I've known great cops, soldiers, and guards. I can't imagine a human society in which there would not be some form of cops, soldiers, or guards, simply because some people because of mental illness or greed (yes, that may be redundant) will want to make other people suffer. All societies need people who will protect the weak from the malicious.

But you're still safest with cops, soldiers, and guards if you assume they're looking for an excuse to hurt you.

ETA 2: The best way to deal with cops, soldiers, and guards is to smile and be as helpful as you possibly can. They didn't make the rules they're enforcing.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Q. of the Day

Do petitions to the government really make a difference?

Dr Peter Watts, Canadian science fiction writer, beaten and arrested at US border

Dr Peter Watts, Canadian science fiction writer, beaten and arrested at US border.

ETA: Emma's post on the subject is here.

ETA 2: Peter Watts' account is here.

Rethink Afghanistan: Experiences in the Afghanistan War

Rethink Afghanistan: Experiences in the Afghanistan War

Via BraveNewFoundation:
President Obama has decided to send more than 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, at a cost of more than $1 million per soldier/year. But America cannot afford a war that does not make us safer, and Congress has the power to stop the escalation.

This is why a group of Afghanistan veterans will deliver a petition to be read on the Congressional floor by Rep. Alan Grayson urging his fellow congessmembers to Vote NO on any spending bill that would send more troops to Afghanistan. From the front lines of battle to the halls of Congress, these courageous men and women know the perils of the conflict and are ready to demand a new course of action

We need to reach 100,000 signatures - a number that Congress, mainstream media and the American public must recognize.

Please sign the petition telling Congress we cannot afford a war that does not make us safer. 

taking a new direction

I've changed the subtitle of this blog to "seeking the best of all possible worlds". I plan to make that change significant. Like anyone who has ever trolled, mobbed, or flamed, I've suffered from Siwoti syndrome because I thought the only way I could make a difference was to identify lies and errors where I found them. It's time to accept that disinformation can never be defeated—some people will always believe that Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet—and move from identifying problems to seeking solutions. Yes, they're related, but focusing on the first will destroy you, and the second will save you.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Roches songs

A song from one of my favorite Christmas albums:

And a rather earnest song with their usual great harmonies and a fine line that dairystatedad reminded me of, "Nobody's God says hate your neighbor":

liberals versus socialists

I'm feeling a little less grumpy about liberals today. Yes, thanks to liberals who have the Presidency, a majority in the House of Representatives, and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the US is expanding the war in Afghanistan and we'll be getting mandatory private insurance instead of universal health care*, but that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Obama never promised to do anything more than he's done.

Sometimes liberals are socialist allies, but despite the cries of idiot pundits, liberals are not socialists. They're just capitalists who wish capitalism was a tiny bit less cruel so they could enjoy what capitalism gives the rich. That's how it's always been. I wrote this elsewhere today:
I'm rereading Wheen's biography of Karl Marx, which has this, from Engels: "The fact is, au fond, that even these radical bourgeois ... see us as their future main enemies, and have no intention of putting into our hands weapons which we would shortly turn against themselves."
Liberals are still capitalists, and therefore they make dangerous allies for socialists.
Which explains why the Democratic Party regularly teams up with the Republicans to make it harder for third parties to compete in US politics.

* I haven't decided if Robert Reich is a borderline socialist, but I love the guy, whatever he is: How a Few Private Health Insurers Are on the Way to Controlling Health Care

Americans are cafeterians

Pew Report: Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths

The first priority is peace

From War is not Peace:
A few months ago, when I visited an Afghan office for women’s empowerment, staffers took me to a pilot project in one of Kabul’s poorest neighborhoods. There, women were learning small-scale business skills while also gaining personal strength and mutual support.

Two-dozen women, who ranged in age from early 20s to late 50s, talked with enthusiasm about the workshops. They were desperate to change their lives. When it was time to leave, I had a question: What should I tell people in the United States, if they ask what Afghan women want most of all?

After several women spoke, the translator summed up. “They all said that the first priority is peace.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

disappointed with tonight's "Criminal Minds" for class and rape reasons

1. It turned into a "Be afraid of working class men" story. Yes, the set-up was more complex than that, but it boiled down to "Be afraid of valets."

2. Prentiss, on arresting the guy, hopes he'll be raped regularly in prison. Prison rape is a problem, not a solution. Yeah, that's an emotional response, not a reasoned one, but until now, Prentiss has seemed a little more enlightened than that. (And, yes, she would be creeped out by someone who preys on attractive brunettes. But the scene was still played as, "He will be punished in prison by being raped." Frankly, given the character, odds are good he'll be in prison looking for weaker inmates to rape. And given that humans are fallible, some of them will be innocent of the crimes they're convicted for.)