Monday, December 31, 2007

You're Kidding

The dueling between social advocates and businesses over the minimum wage continues. Washington's is set to increase to $8.07 an hour tomorrow.

According to Camille St. Onge, spokeswoman for the Washington Restaurant Association, the average employee being paid minimum wage plus tips makes $20.71 per hour. (Washington doesn't allow businesses to count tips as part of the minimum wage.) Which means that the average tipped employee makes in the area of $40,000.00 a year. Am I the only person to whom that sounds fishy?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Power Plays

John McGuinness penned an interesting column for Quiblit Magazine that leaves me in something of a quandary. I share his dislike for Paul Krugman's stance in his recent Slate column, not caring for the assertion that Democrats "have to be ready to forcefully make the case that progressive goals are right and conservatives are wrong," in the same way that I disliked the Republican assertion that conservative goals were always right, and liberals were always (and often intentionally) wrong.

John points out that groups that have used political power to "unfairly" benefit themselves (the forces of "organized money," as FDR termed them) are unlikely to accept policies in which they are the losers, and that they are powerful enough to "sabotage a plan they were shut out of creating." And he could very well be right.

But look at where that leaves us: We seem to then have three primary options -
1) The forces of organized money benefit at the expense of others.
2) The forces of organized money break even, holding on to what they already have.
3) The forces of organized money, refusing to accept any scenario that casts them as losers, sabotage the process.

If we therefore admit that they must always have a seat at the table, we are forced to admit that they have all of the power, and that no-one else really has any. After all, the forces of organized money didn't fear being sabotaged by the people who their preferred policies cast as losers up until this point. And if they effectively have the ability to kill any proposals they don't like, one wonders why they would even settle for simply breaking even.

"I spent a lot of time covering politics before I got into science, and one thing I learned is that anybody who starts pleading for consensus is losing." William Saletan ("Technical Knockout" Slate Magazine, 17 November, 2005)
Anyone who starts out from a position of seeking consensus with organizations that are understood to have gamed the system for their own benefit at the expense of others is, I think, going to be seen as weak, begging for crumbs at the feet of the powerful. A candidate that projects himself as being unable to stand up for their core constituency only appeals to a) a constituency that already sees themselves as defeated or b) the opposition. I don't see how either platform carries much hope for success in today's political climate.

I'd like to think that there is way to implement democracy without always succumbing to the tyranny of the majority. But that requires a level of enlightenment on ALL sides, not just one. But at this point, is anyone really going to believe that a Republican repentance of a policy of using a 51% majority to impose their ideas on the rest of the nation as being anything other than empty political expediency? Especially when the standard conservative position is still one of belligerence and self-righteousness? (John's a great guy - but he's not the sort of conservative that we've become accustomed to.) Everyone can be trusted to see the light when faced with the shoe being on the other foot - in light of that, it's going to be hard to make the case that anyone who takes them at their word on that is anything but a naïf.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bad Laws, Ridiculous Outcomes

This situation is completely messed up. While I don't think of myself as a hardcore Law and Order type, I do understand that societies make rules for a reason, and that a society with the wherewithal is allowed to enforce sanctions on people who break the rules. But this crosses the line into the outright ludicrous, and seems to serve nothing other than the spiteful vengefulness that is a common hallmark of the insecure and fearful.

"I feel that I helped create a solution," [Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rebecca Sosa] insists. Asked if she knows how many men are living under the bridge, she answers, "Yes, many. I guess that at some point, the system will have to address that issue," she concedes with vague cheerfulness. "But I am not ready to address that issue. Maybe another commissioner should address that issue.... Your question is: Am I going to do something? The answer is no."
Tax dollars at work, folks. But perhaps the scary thing is that Commissioner Sosa clearly realizes that anyone who attempts to alter her idiotic law to create a better solution is, in effect, painting a massive bullseye on their forehead. You get the government you pay for.

If someone can explain to me how ANYONE - survivors, families, society, offenders, anybody - benefits from forcing sex offenders to live literally under bridges, I'll be all for it. I'm not holding my breath, however.
There is abundant evidence that residency restrictions do nothing to reduce sex crimes against children. For one thing, the vast majority of sex offenses are not committed by strangers: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nine of 10 victims under the age of 18 know their abusers, and 34 percent were family members. And while residency restrictions target those who have already offended, most sex offenses — 87 percent — are committed by individuals with no prior records.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Supreme Court of Public Opinion

The flap over the destruction of a set of recordings of a CIA interrogation of two al-Qaida members drones on.

There's an interesting twist to this tale that's come up recently - the idea that it was in the best interests of the United States that the tapes were destroyed, because the reaction from the Arab Street to whatever was on them would be worse than the uproar over rendition and Abu Ghraib. I've heard this a few times by now, and it's starting to get old, mainly because it seems like an attempt to make something that doesn't make any sense appear logical through repetition.

The idea that now that the recordings can never come to light will shield the reputation of the United States from further harm is spurious because that horse is already FAR away from the barn. People already know that the recordings were made. And people understand that the tapes were destroyed. Given what we saw from the goings-on at Abu Ghraib, I suspect that people feel that the new tapes must really show some bad stuff, otherwise, there would have been no need to dispose of them. I suspect that the reputation of the United States has become autocatalytic at this point - people who think the worst of the United States ascribe nightmare scenarios to American actions, and in preaching those scenarios into an anti-American echo chamber, bolster their negative view of the United States.

If there's one thing that we should have learned by now, it's that lack of hard evidence doesn't tend to mean much to the Court of Public Opinion. After all, O. J. Simpson was acquitted of murder - and you can see how many minds that's changed. With the recordings gone, people can read into them whatever they want to. If people decide that what's on the tapes are orders of magnitude worse than anything that's come out so far, now there's no way to refute that. The idea that something that if you can't prove it, it didn't happen, is an example of the sort of legalistic thinking that doesn't really fly in the real world. (Technically, it doesn't work in a court of law, either, buts that's the way that people tend to think of things.) Not that people always believe the proof that you might put in front of them - let a member of the September 11th Truth Movement vent at you for a while, and they'll happily lay out for you mounds of evidence that they feel people have ignored. But in the absence of evidence to really bolster a position, the other side can have a field day, presenting conjectures as facts and challenging you to refute them.

From the point of view of the reputation of the United States, the damage, if any, is already done. It seems unlikely that one more video would have really made a difference.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Miscellaneous Objections to the Theory of Natural Selection

In this chapter, Mr. Darwin selects and tackles a number of objections to the Theory of Natural Selection raised by others. It's interesting to note that right off the bat he declines to be bothered with people whom he feels haven't bothered to actually acquaint themselves with the theory before embarking on criticisms. (I, for my part, am reading this book from the opposite perspective - since once cannot very well defend, or otherwise intelligently speak to, a work that one hasn't actually read.) It's also a safe bet that had Darwin attempted to answer every possible critic of his, he would have needed another 670 pages, devoted just to that alone.

In structure, this chapter is somewhat dull. Darwin rattles off some critique raised by some or another noted scientist of his time (one Mr. St. George Mivart seeming to be his chief critic), and then proceeds to explain why he feels that the particular objection is off the mark. Hardly a rousing read, unless one is really into this sort of thing, which I am not. But again, there are some really wonderful insights into the period to be gleaned, and it's an interesting look into how people of the time thought of things. The evolution of organisms over time is clearly seen as a progressive force, with later editions of a species moving towards some standard of perfection. This is a notion that doesn't seem to be so prevalent today. It's also worth noting that Darwin doesn't see Natural Selection as being an agent of change - but merely the mechanism by which certain changes become fixed. Other changes may occur on their own, and as long as there is no particular reason why Natural Selection would act against them, they could very well stick around.

Darwin also deals with one of the most tiresome questions of any discussion of evolution - "Why hasn't such-and-such an animal evolved into some other sort of animal?" (In the modern world, ninety-seven times out of one hundred, it's because the person asking the question is an idiot, wanting to know something stupid like "Why haven't humans evolved wings?" or something else equally inane.) In the end, it's about competition. Someone once asked me why monkeys hadn't evolved to displace us yet. The answer is simple - with humans already on the scene, monkeys aren't going to be able to get to a place where they can beat us at our own game. The way I see it, primates would have about one generation to go from wild animals to "Planet of the Apes," because if it took any longer, we'd see the threat, and deal with it. Most primates are better off where they are, as masters of the ecological niches they inhabit, where humans (while they might be a threat to the ecosystem) are not direct competition.

Whether Darwin manages to answer all of the criticisms raised convincingly is not for me to answer. I would say yes, but I'm biased, and I also understand that I have insights into the goings-on of life that the scientific community of a century and a half ago didn't have access to. Hence it is perhaps easier for me to quit the realm of miracle for that of science than it was for some of Darwin's forgotten contemporaries.

Still No Unicorns

It turns out that the British are capable of finding the current presidential campaign pretty much as funny as we do. Here , the Times of London has a little fun at Mike Huckabee's expense by asking how the Governor thinks that kangaroos came about.

Line of the hour: "According to the origins theory model used by young earth creation scientists, modern kangaroos are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah's Ark prior to the Great Flood."

"Young earth creation scientists?" Is it even legal to use those four words together in the same sentence?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ancient History

So I was reading Matthew Yglesias' post on "Secularism and Establishment" on The In it, he offers his opinion on why European nations tend to be so overwhelmingly secular.

Of course, not all of his readers agree with his analysis. One remarks: "When you listen to young people talk, they point out that religion has, you know, led to, gee golly, a LOT OF FREAKING WAR." A few posts later, someone else remarks: "Actually, if you look at the bloodiest century of them all -- that would be the 20th -- you'll find that religion plays a very minor role in all the carnage." There are a lot of posts back and forth after this, on the role of warfare in European Secularism, but the conversation never manages to deal with anything prior to 1914. One particularly telling comment "Pretty sure that war has little to do with the decline of religion in Europe as: [...] b)The only people [...] who go to church in Europe are the elderly who actually experienced the war first hand."

I'm impressed at the number of people who don't seem to understand that history goes back farther than World War One. It strikes me (more than likely erroneously) as the reason why Young Earth Creationism can still thrive here. If anything that happened more than 100 years ago is such ancient history that it's no longer actually of importance to anyone, it seems that it would be easy to believe that the entire earth is only six thousand or so years old. Despite the fact that such things are commonly reported in the American media, I expect that many Americans would be surprised to find that there are Greeks that are still upset with the Crusader sacking of Constantinople, and that there are families in North Africa that hold as heirlooms keys to homes in Spain that their families were driven out of hundreds of years ago.

Weekend Winters

The first two weekends of this December were marked by an interesting phenomenon - snow in the lowlands around Puget Sound. This, in my experience is somewhat rare, although I've only been here a little more than a decade. Long-timers and natives tell me that there was more snow back in the day.

Being from Chicago, "snow" and "winter" are somewhat synonymous, to the degree that I tend to refer to snowy days as "winter" (as opposed to the Rainy Season, which is a more apt name for Winter in the Seattle area). Hence, snowy Saturdays and Sundays have become "Weekend Winters."

Our first December Weekend Winter was the prelude to the rampant flooding that seemed to submerge half of Western Washington, which made everyone quickly forget what a nice little snowfall it had been. So, a little silliness in memoriam of a rather pleasant Weekend Winter.

Oh... the little Weekend Winter came down to Puget Sound.
Down came the Rain, and washed the Winter out.
Out came the Sun, but couldn't dry the Rain.
And the little Weekend Winter was never seen again.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Paging Bill O'Reilly...

It seems that "The War On Christmas" had gone on sabbatical this year, so someone went out to recall it. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports: "Ho-ho-no: McDermott votes against Christmas," calling out the Representative for voting against House Resolution 847, noting the fact that he voted for House Resolutions 635 and 747 which acknowledge the onset of Ramadan and Diwali, respectively, and make bland expressions of "respect" to Muslims, Indian Americans and the Indian Diaspora. H RES 635 does seem to have something of a point, being mainly an exhortation to Americans to remember that not all Muslims are anti-American.

Although the article is written as if the three resolutions were the same, differing only in the religion named in each one, the details offered show some clear differences. But the long and short of it is that H RES 847 seems to have been designed mainly to pander to Evangelicals who may have felt slighted by the other two resolutions, and determined to answer one slight with one of their own. Tom Tancredo seems to think that the "liberal elite" is going to take exception to the resolution (but he also sees the line between church and state as "non-existent") - I'm curious to see if he's right, or if the only teapot tempest that this is going to generate will be from Evangelopatriot commentators who will see McDermott's refusal to pander to someone else's constituency as heralding the annual onslaught of the forces of Evil.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Security Show

You know, I could pontificate on aviation "security theater," or, I could let someone much better at it do it for me.

"DHS is another example of that old political standby: Don't just stand there; do something that will keep people from noticing that you're just standing there." Bruce Reed ("The Has Been - My Kingdom for a Department" Slate Magazine, 13 July, 2005)
But I suppose that part of the issue is that there's really nothing wrong with just standing there, if someone else is effectively handling the problem elsewhere. But we, as the general public, want to SEE action being taken. So the guy on the scene, even if there's nothing he can do, has to go through the motions of trying to make a difference. We see this public performance, and decide that things are being handled. So... where's the incentive to have someone working their tail off to do the heavy lifting, if no one is going to know, or care? Hence the public perception of something being done becomes more useful than something actually being done - so nothing is actually done.

Confused yet?

Thursday, December 6, 2007


Mark Morford, a columnist for SFGate (which I think is part of the San Francisco Chronicle), penned an interesting column about the way the media reports religion.

"And finally, I think of the eternal chicken-and-egg debate, modified thusly: Which came first, the radical fundamentalists who can't walk and chew warm theology at the same time, or the overeager commercial media, ever in need of tales of shock and titillation and blood to get you to pay attention?"
Mark Morford. "Let us kill all the teddy bears"
During his piece, he takes aim at Pope Benedict XVI, on the strength of a piece from ABC News, in which it is purported that a "Papal Letter Blames Atheism for World's Worst Woes." I popped over the Vatican's website, and read Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, and realized that this time out, the overeager commercial media got the last laugh. While you can understand how the Associated Press writer came to her conclusions, it's pretty clear that this particular tale of shock has been modified a wee bit, to make it a little more, well, shocking.

The interpretation of papal language isn't exactly my chosen career, so I'm not going to attempt to give you a full picture of Benedict's statements here. But the alleged papal "blame game" goes a little something like this: People see the injustice in the world, cannot understand how a just and loving God allows such things, and turn to atheism. Believing that there is no God to create justice, such people have no hope for the future. If they are in positions of power, and attempt to enforce a just society on people, you can wind up with horrendous atrocities. In other words, lack of faith in God can lead well-meaning people to do nasty things while trying to bring about a just end, not realizing that only God can manage the goal they're striving for. Hardly a scathing criticism, especially when one considers the fact that Benedict feels that this has come about because Christianity itself "has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer's own soul [...]" Perhaps more importantly, this criticism of atheism is only a very small part of a rather long encyclical - you've got to do a LOT of reading about other topics before you get there.

Lesson for today - if one is going to slam the media for constantly looking to shock and titillate, it's not a good idea to uncritically take their shocking and titillating stories at face value...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

You Forgot One

There is a stereotype that the "mainstream media" is selective in which candidates they talk about - and this perception is strongest among the supporters of the second-tier candidates. Ron Paul supporters, for instance, made a lot of the fact that the "MSM" seemed to avoid talking about their candidate in the early stages of the election. In this Associated Press story about todays' NPR radio-only debate in Iowa, the AP completely glosses over the fact that former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, as a candidate for the democratic presidential nomination, was at the debate. The article doesn't include a simple list of the participants - if you didn't know who was there, you'd need to pick their names out the overall text of the article, and Gravel's name doesn't appear anywhere in it. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, even though he wasn't at the debate, gets a mention in the story, explaining his absence.

As for the debate itself, I listened to it, and felt that there should have been more effort made to have each candidate speak to every question. The hosts did seem to direct more of the questions to the presumed front-runners.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Blame It On The Rain

Today, we were served with a reminder that it only rarely ever really rains in Seattle. Typically, what the locals normally describe as rain is, to an out-of-towner, simply a lingering drizzle. Which is why people in Seattle are dying for bit of sunshine in place that gets less annual rainfall than, say, New York City.

But today, it rained. For real. And half the Puget Sound region is flooded out. Entire apartment complexes in low-lying areas are dealing with feet of standing water. And because of the haphazard (at best) planning that went into the region's explosive growth, two or three flooded intersections can result in detours 10 miles, and a couple hours, long.

I always find it odd how little water it really takes to bring this place to a standstill. Despite the fact that we allegedly live in a temperate rain forest, this area is very water intolerant, and when more than an inch or two falls in a short span of time, everything goes crazy. And there seems to be little, if any, real official response to the changing conditions. Despite the fact that roads were closed all over the place, you couldn't find a police officer, or anyone else who could tell you what was going on, or which roads were still open. Traffic reports on the radio weren't much help, either. This general lack of preparation seems to be common in these sorts of situations, and consistently makes matters worse, as you wind up with people wandering around, not knowing where they should be attempting to go. This situation needs to change, so that people can make better judgments as to what they should be doing, and avoid making themselves into part of the problem.