Friday, August 31, 2007

Hypocrites R Us

Well, it's starting to look like Senator Larry Craig (R - Idaho) is going down in flames. He's got some sort of announcement about his future planned for this Saturday, and the conventional wisdom (and the news media) says that he's going to throw in the towel. If this goes down like most other political retreats-under-fire, there will be a lot of blaming, but no-one will care, and attempts to salvage "dignity" (whatever that means in cases like this) that no-one will notice.

As per usual, the calls of "Hypocrisy!" have gone up from critics, some advocates for the homosexual community, some not. The basis of the charge lies at the intersection of very public hostility to homosexual rights coupled with what appears to be private homosexual behavior. While this formulation has become something of the public standard, I think that makes an assumption that you can't always back up - namely that Senator Craig would want, were he not a Republican Senator in a conservative state, expanded rights for homosexuals to be the law of the land. It would be like saying that a religious politician is a hypocrite for being outspoken in their support of the separation of church and state, and for laws that contravened the teachings of their religion. In the same way, it's possible to be homosexual, and sincerely opposed to laws that expand the rights of homosexuals. While we may find it bizarre that people could take such a stance, the charge that it is inherently hypocritical isn't really accurate.

Being a member of a given group is perceived as carrying an obligation to side with the party line of that group, whenever there might be a conflict. In that light, the term "hypocrite" may be better understood as sort of a euphemism for "traitor." Think back to the civil rights movement, and the anger that White supporters of civil rights faced from other Whites. Alternatively, being a member of a group is thought of as creating an insurmountable bias towards that group - for instance that while the childless might not favor legislation that favors parents, becoming a parent automagically changes one's feelings. Again, the idea that NOT following the party line constitutes a form of betrayal is often present, and it manifests itself with the label of "hypocrite."

No matter how you slice it, the result is going to be the same. A public flogging, that in the end, changes nothing. But I suppose there are worse pastimes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Computer Games

"He was an 18-year-old Marine headed to war.

She was an attractive young woman sending him off with pictures and lingerie.

Or so each one thought."
If you're thinking: "Uh oh - THIS isn't going to end well," You're right...

The quote that leads off this posting is from an old Associated Press Article that made the rounds back in January, when this first came to my attention. This month's Wired Magazine picks up the story, both online, and in print, and goes into some of the rather bizarre details, including a seriously creepy IM exchange.

With two forty-somethings both pretending to be teenagers, and each thinking the other was on the level, there was no way that this story was going to have a happy ending. Their youthful alter-egos were even engaged to be married. Somehow this all makes people running around in the woods with boffer weapons pretending to be dragonslayers seem to be a perfectly normal pastime...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Park It

So I go to Costco to pick up a couple of things. Now, like most big-box stores, Costco's got a parking lot that could have its own Area Code. Being somewhat early on a Sunday, the lot wasn't what one would term "crowded" by any stretch of the imagination. But there was still a huge snarl in the traffic flow. Someone had decided to camp out, waiting for someone else to pull out of a parking space. They'd stopped right in the middle of the traffic lane, so there wasn't enough room to pass them on either side. And topping things off, someone else was waiting to get out of their parking space, but couldn't, because the camper was blocking them in. All this, when there were empty parking spaces in the next row over.

Why it's become so important to find a parking space as close to the door as possible is completely beyond me. What, is walking an extra 30 feet proven to cause cancer in laboratory animals or something? Generally speaking, I have found that it's faster to drive to the first open spot that you find, park, and walk back, than wait for a closer spot to open up. I routinely pass someone waiting for a space, go park my car, and walk back past that same person, who's still waiting for the space to open up. I understand that sometimes, you can wind up walking an extra hundred yards or more, but it's not like most of us wouldn't benefit from a little more exercise.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Laugh. Out. Loud.

My friend Ben has posted a link to a YouTube video for Atheist proselytization. Way too funny.

The angry reactions of some of the people to their door-to-door work brings up an interesting question. How many people dislike missionaries coming to their homes, but support their own churches doing missionary work? Something else that tends to fall under the "right makes right" rule. (I'm right, and therefore things that I do to advance my cause are also right.)

Like Ben, I don't have a problem with Mormons either - of those that I know, I only want to take a rake to one of them - but I do find that street missionaries tend to be annoyingly condescending and (unsurprisingly) holier-than-thou.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Another Teapot Tempest

About a month ago, two men "were seen behaving unusually aboard several Washington state ferries." So now the FBI is looking for them. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a short story about the FBI search, but they didn't run the pictures of the men, citing that the men were neither considered suspects or charged with any crimes. Thus starts yet another of the bizarre teapot tempests that pass for controversies here in the Emerald City. Some days, I'm positive that the Scarecrow would be right at home here. This whole thing has spiraled wildly out of control. Of course, the P-I didn't help matters any by making the story the subject of their Daily Haiku. It seems that someone in the conservative media decided that a little outrage was in order, and suddenly the P-I's weblogs were chock full of comments by anonymous users questioning everything from their patriotism to their intelligence. We'll see how long it takes for things to return to normal. I give it until the weekend.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Imbecile Watch

It was a bad day for the "Next Blog»" link. If you're reading the Blogspot version of this weblog, you'll notice it, up at the top of the page. It's part of the default Blogger user interface - most Blogspot pages have them. I was curious about what other sorts of things people were using their free weblogs to write about, so I clicked it. And immediately found myself in what looked like and amateur pornographer's diary. It turned out that the alleged "blog" was basically one giant (and pretty explicit) ad for AdultFriendFinder. If you wander through Blogspot pages at random (not that I'm recommending this), you come across quite a number of them, actually. Having burned my monitor (it just couldn't be disinfected enough), I resolved to stay FAR away from the "Next Blog»" link in the future...

My question about this is a simple one: Who actually falls for that? Who, after randomly finding themselves on a page called Dogsex-Stories, Free-Scat or Rape-Porn sees an amateurish picture of some topless woman and thinks: "Hey! I can sign up for a website where I can meet this woman, and she'll have sex with me!" It's like the 419 scam e-mails that I still get every couple months or so. Is there ANYONE able to read who hasn't heard about these things yet? Granted, they don't use the Nigeria angle any more - the last one I got claimed that it was from a Hong Kong banker who was trying to move money for an millionaire Iraqi tribal chieftain who'd been killed by insurgents. (At least they keep up with the times...) I know that this sort of thing is cheap, and you really only need a very few suckers to turn a profit. But is there really ANYONE out there dim enough to fall for one of these?

(This is where I get myself into trouble. I'm going to wind up with a comment from a dear friend of mine, telling me that they were just scammed, and here I am making fun of the poor people of are taken in. I suspect that I'm going to have to respond: "You're a good friend, and I love you like a sibling - but you're a complete and total imbecile for having fallen for that, and given that you're intelligent enough to have graduated the 4th grade, you should know better.")

Maybe I shouldn't be, but I'm still amazed when anyone actually falls for anything like this...

The Merit Principle

"Meritocracy, it's often noted, is the most vicious of hierarchies because it tells people not only that they have wound up at a certain level but that they deserve to be at that level. It may say something about the unwillingness of putative meritocrats (like [Charles] Clarke [, the Labor education minister]) to face the harshness of their own system that they need to acccuse people like [Prince] Charles, who make those harsh judgments explicit, of not being meritocrats but of really being aristos who don't want people to 'rise above their station.'" Mickey Kaus. ("Don't Let Prince Charles See The Incredibles.", 21 November 2004)
Meritocracy is an interesting idea, and one way of measuring its attractiveness is to look at all of the contexts in which we find it being invoked. Everything from Little League games to employment interviews to Presidential elections are seen by someone as an exercise in meritocracy. But it's also one of those systems that means one thing one the individual level, and quite another on the larger social level.

People like to think of meritocracy as removing barriers, allowing them to rise to a level of income and prestige that they feel that they are due, limited only by their own abilities and work ethic. But on a group level, meritocracy is about getting the best use out of the resources at hand, and cares little for what said resources might want. For a moment, let's go back to the Presidential election. Rarely to you see a major party candidate who is clearly unqualified for the job, regardless of what the other candidates might tell you in their advertising campaigns. So it's likely that ANY of the people running for President could actually do the job, and do it quite well. In fact, there are likely at least a few thousand Americans who would make a good President. But Chief Executive is a singular position - there's only one at a time. So there is a large pool of Presidential talent that goes untapped. This belies the idea of meritocracy that Mickey Kaus invokes.

Social systems that are designed for the good of the overall society have little to say about individuals. It's possible that one is a janitor within a meritocracy simply because all of the more demanding and prestigious positions that one is qualified for are already filled by perfectly competent individuals. A greater understanding of that would de-stigmatize lower-prestige positions, and remove much of the system's perceived harshness.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Blamed In China

I heard/watched two news stories today the dealt with the current recall of Mattel toys. One on NPR's Morning Edition and one on ABC's World News.

Of course, it's the same issue, so the stories are very similar. But the NPR story makes one very important point that's missing from the ABC story, and from this Associated Press story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. A number of the recalled toys are being recalled because they have small magnets in them, and children have been known to swallow these magnets, which can then cause lethal intestinal damage. But this is a problem with the design of the toys, which was done in the United States, not with the manufacture of the toys. In fact, these are toys that escaped an earlier recall, when Mattel first learned of the issue and corrected the designs, late last year.

I'm reminded of the constant criticism that was leveled against Japan in the late 70's and early 80's. Now, as then, some of the criticism is valid. But it's important, I think, to avoid conflating valid criticism with uninformed criticism, as all of it begins then to lose credibility.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Bulletproof Junk

A pair of New England fathers have created backpacks with bullet-resistant materials in them, as a sort of impromptu shield for children who have the incredible misfortune to be caught in a schoolhouse shooting. Personally, I suspect that if the things catch on, it's going to be in applications other than grade schools.

"'I want to keep my kid safe. I don't care what you do -- if you want to fight the good fight or fix the world's hurts, I can't help you, but my kids are going to be safe because of these backpacks,' [Joe] Curran [of My Child's Pack] said."
The idea that these backpacks are going to guarantee safety in a shooting situation is nearly too laughable to be taken seriously. If a child is going to get out of a school shooting alive, it's going to take more than a "bulletproof" backpack to do the trick. For all the packs seem to give Mr. Curran an ironclad confidence in his children's safety, they would have done little good in an attack like the one in Paradise, Pennsylvania in October of 2006, where the gunman lined up children and shot them "execution-style." And even in a "walk down the hall and shoot people randomly" sort of situation, the presence of mind to actively shield oneself isn't going to come from the backpack - it's going to come from some sort of practice or drills.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Baristas Gone Wild

At one point, during my drive to work, I would drive by 8 different espresso places (only one of them a Starbucks). The total length of my commute at the time? 4 and a half miles. Given the absolutely insane level of saturation in the coffee market around here, espresso stand owners are turning to gimmicks. (Had it been up to me, I would have worked to compete on the quality of the product. But I suppose that's why I'm not a businessman.) And the gimmick that it seems that many of the independent espresso stands are turning to are skimpily clad young women. And it seems to be working. After all, people are noticing, and the newspaper stories keep coming. Of course, it's starting something of a teapot tempest (although I guess that coffeecup cyclone might be a more apt term), with people grousing about the objectification of women on the one hand, and people standing up for the concept and "empowerment" on the other.

Of course, the reason why it's catching on like a forest fire is that it works. Guys who normally think that $4.00 for a latté is highway robbery don't mind as much when the chance to chat with and ogle some cute young thing is a part of the deal. Well, sex sells. It like Hooters opening a string of coffee shops. So it's unlikely to be very long before we see someone apply the "Hey, let's get hot girls" model to some other business. And I'll admit right now that I'm afraid to find out what business it's going to be.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Culture Wars In Print

Books, I am learning, play a major part in the American Culture Wars. I was in the bank today, when one of the tellers said to another that Charles Darwin had written in The Origin of Species that if they ever found life smaller than a single cell, that this invalidated all of his theories, and in effect, proved him wrong. Having personally slogged through The Origin of Species, I recall no such passage anywhere within the book, and Darwin goes into a fair amount of detail of current criticism of the theory of evolution. Later, at a bookstore, I found How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered The World, which seems to be a screed taking aim at anyone who dare believe anything other than the orthodox scientific view of the world, calling them everything from eccentric to dangerously delusional.

All of this prompted me to think about the Culture Wars (which have faded back into obscurity, given that it's currently nowhere near Christmas, and abortion clinic bombings seem to have gone out of style some years back), and the literary front. Not being much of a literary sort anymore (and having a preference for nonfiction over opinion and commentary), I hadn't really put much thought into the degree to which the Culture Wars are being waged in print. There seem to be thousands of books about, that attempt to bolster one side of the argument, or, perhaps more commonly, undermine the other. Despite the fact that The Origin of Species predates the American Civil War, and has been almost completely superseded by other works in the field of evolutionary biology, there is still an idea among the religiously-minded that being able to somehow discredit either the book or Charles Darwin will completely de-legitimize evolutionary theory, and leave the world with no choice but to accept the idea that the Genesis story (well, one of them, anyway) is a literal history of the origin of life on Earth. On the other hand, books like Christopher Hitchen's God is Not Great, and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion are widely understood to be attacks on both religious faith, and those who hold to it.

Not having the energy or the inclination to be a culture warrior myself, my interest in the literary side of the battle will remain more academic than active. (Although it can be hard to avoid the field of combat entirely - there are simply too many lone soldiers wandering around looking for enemy collaborators to do battle with.) But I suspect that one day I'll be interested to learn just how many skirmishes were fought in print, and who was judged to have won them.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Not A Problem

A friend of mine is having difficulties with his Google login. It appears that someone has hacked it, and taken over his accounts. One of the first things they did was change the password, so of course, he's locked out. Trying to get through to Google doesn't seem to be doing him much of any good. To a certain degree, this is unsurprising. Part of the cynicism that people have towards corporate America stems from a belief that corporations tend to be very diligent about shielding themselves from the problems that their customers might have with their products - perhaps more diligent than they are about creating quality products in the first place. Let's face it, if you go to the store and buy a loaf of bread, and it spontaneously combusts and burns down your home because some company bigwig decided that some flammable chemical was just the thing for the packaging, there's likely a disclaimer on the package that says that in purchasing that loaf of bread, you agree that nothing's ever the company's fault.

Of course, part of this is likely a pitfall of "free." People who represent a revenue stream tend to get faster service than people who a corporation looks on as freeloaders. But there is a certain amount of cynicism that is engendered by what seems to be a common idea in the modern United States. That "not MY problem" equals "not A problem." Corporations aren't the only ones who fall into this. It seems to be a general attitude across the nation. Ever notice how issues that tend to affect mainly poor and/or minority communities are minor - but when the white middle class starts feeling it, then suddenly it's a major crisis? For example - how much did we hear about offshoring when the only people affected by it were textile workers in the southeast?

So it seems the thing to do here is try to put the word out. Not that I'm expecting a sudden public outcry against Google or anything. But in making more people aware of what seems to be a pretty serious customer service lapse on Google's part, there's a better chance that they'll see this issue as being in part their problem. And while companies may ignore other people's problems, they rarely ignore their own.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Whither the Throwdown?

So I went and saw Transformers. Being old enough to remember the introduction of the original toy line, I was curious to see what a big-screen treatment of the subject would be like.

The giant robots were pretty impressive. Equally impressive was that the designs were not very toyetic. After all, Hasbro IS a toy company, so one could forgiven for thinking that they would absolutely insist on robot designs that could be easily mass-produced as toys. The fact that they didn't perhaps points to a level of confidence in the property that we've become unaccustomed to seeing in corporate America.

But I went to the movie thinking that I was going to see two-plus hours of impressively animated robots turning into things and beating the brake fluid out of each other, and I was prepared for some serious robot-butt-kicking to go on. And I was a little disappointed that it didn't seem to work out that way. The climactic battle at the end of the movie was something of a letdown, as they kept the focus on the movie's human characters. Given that they must have had a multi-bajillion dollar special effects budget, I really wanted to see the Autobots and Decepticons go head to head on center stage - at least for a few minutes.

Oh, well. That's why they have sequels...

Don't get me wrong. It was still a very fun movie. Giant robots trying to stay out of sight by hiding behind trees and under the eaves was Looney Tunes-level comic gold. The Deception police car (Barricade), with the motto "To punish and enslave," on its side was absolutely brilliant. And the Allspark imbuing a Nokia cell phone with life, a malevolent disposition, missile launchers and a miniature gatling gun was absolutely great.

But next time, more rock 'em, sock 'em, giant robot, please. Maybe it ended up on the cutting room floor, but it seemed that much of the big battle at the end of the movie takes place off-camera. Why make a big deal out of the fact that Ironhide is loaded for bear, if we never get to see him "bring the rain?" Megatron is standing on top of a building, dangling Jazz over the street - how did they get there? What was Ratchet doing the entire time? And where was Barricade? Not that the entire movie needed to be, as a friend off mine put it, "giant robots punching each other." But few people are going to see a movie based around a bunch of toys that turn into things in an interstellar battle between good and evil and expect to see a marvel of screenwriting and character development. So why not just go for the CG eye candy, and cut out the middleman?

Arab Fest

So every year at about this time, the Arab Center of Washington holds an Arab Festival, showcasing some 22 countries, down at the Seattle Center. This year, according to a radio story that I heard earlier this week, Christian missionaries will be attending, looking to convert Moslems that they come across. They will also be setting up outside mosques in the area. It was only a small story, in a top-of-the-hour news brief, not the sort of thing that seemed to warrant more enduring coverage.

I'm not sure that I approve. Yes, I understand that the missionaries have freedom of speech, and all that, but it seems... unwelcoming. Partially because it strikes me as being motivated more by fear than by a desire to spread "the Word of God." It's unlikely that Islamic radicals are going to be looking to recruit suicide bombers in a venue that an organization has created as an introduction of their culture to the rest of the world. But even if they did convert everybody they spoke to - what then? Our idea that the tensions that we're currently having with the Middle East, as well as Moslem populations in the rest of the world, is due to the religious differences, seems rather naive. Wouldn't they still be upset with us for what they perceive us as having done to them?

I was tempted to go down, and see if anything interesting would come of it, but I passed. Seattle Seafair is this weekend, and that means that one of the floating bridges in closed for part of the midday, so people don't kill themselves trying to watch the Blue Angels fly overhead when they should be watching the highway. So going into and out od Seattle is a pain, and I have a couple of standing appointments on the weekends that I need to keep. So going into the city is less than a good idea. But we'll see if anything pops up in the news later on this weekend.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

You Can See It On Foot

There is a teriyaki place not very far from my new apartment. This should come as a surprise to exactly no-one. After all, I live near Seattle, and you can't swing a dead cat anywhere in the vicinity without breaking the windows of at least half a dozen teriyaki places, two Chinese restaurants, a sushi joint and a Thai place.

But I digress. The point isn't that there's a teriyaki place within walking distance. It's that I never knew it was there before. In fact, despite the fact that I've driven by the place time and again while I've lived out here, I've never noticed the entire strip mall that it sits in. I happened to notice it today simply because I walked over to the gas station for a quick bite to eat that didn't require me to cook anything. When I'm driving, I've found, I'm oblivious to everything that isn't right there on or next to the roadway. When I'm not driving, it's like a whole new world. There are all sorts of places, that have been there for years, and that I've driven past a million times, that I'm suddenly noticing for the first time. I suppose, do a degree, that sort of single-mindedness is helpful. After all, my driving record has no accidents that are more recent than twenty years ago. But something tells me that it might be worthwhile to do a little less driving, and give myself a chance to become better acquainted with this other world that seems to exist only when I'm not behind the wheel.