Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Older And Wiser?

And another twelve months bites the dust...

So. Will 2008 be remembered as the year in which the United States started to reform an economic system that created vast paper "wealth," but was fundamentally broken under the leadership of a young President who pushed his nation to rediscover the spirit of pioneering and intelligent risk taking so that it could regain some portion of its lost standing in the world?

Or will it drift into history as a year in which the nation's entrenched economic interests held the public hostage and the American public showed itself yet again to be willing to be deceived by self-serving politico who mouthed all the right words, and then went back to business as usual?

Of course, it's a false choice - there are many, many more than just two outcomes. But in the end, will we look back on this year as an important point in the "rehabilitation" of the United States of America? Or simply as just another year in what's really starting to look like a downhill slide?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

And Women Get Married WHY...?

Speaking of men being stupid... IOZ turns us on to THIS little gem. Thanks, IOZ!

So... let me get this straight... Women should give into their husbands' requests for sex, regardless of how they feel about it at the time because:

  1. Men are incapable of understanding that someone who doesn't put out when asked loves them.
  2. Women are capable of understanding that someone who's willing to ask them to do something they'd really rather not loves them.
  3. Having to, I don't know, ask for what they want and need and communicate how they feel about things to ensure understanding is "emasculating."
  4. Being in a monogamous relationship is already torture for men and their primitive and animalistic sex drives - asking them to not get sex whenever they want it is just too much.
(And I thought that was mainly women who had a low opinion of men...)

Note that this is from a conservative writer who styles himself a Christian. I guess that in his version of the Bible, all the parts where it says: "No nookie with people you aren't married to," were slipped in by those dastardly demonic women. You'd think that if it was so difficult to uphold that part, they would have repealed it by now, given how generally selective they were in determining what went in, and what stayed out.

The ending is priceless...
Everything written here applies under two conditions: 1. The woman is married to a good man. 2. She wants him to be a happy husband. If either condition is not present, nothing written here matters. But if you are a woman who loves your husband, what is written here can be the most important thing you will read concerning your marriage. Because chances are the man you love won't tell you.
News flash! Any woman who is married to a man who would rather stay silent or lie to her rather than "confess to the amount of hurt and eventual anger [he] experience[s] when repeatedly denied sex" until it gets to the point that "he may try to fill this need with another woman," or engage in "emotional and other forms of withdrawal," isn't married to a "good man." She's married to a childish loser. (Which means, of course, that she's off the hook.)

This is the first part of Prager's little power trip. In Part II: "I will explain in detail why mood should play little or no role in a woman's determining whether she has sex with her husband."

I suspect that Part III will be a detailed explanation of why the Los Angeles County coroner should rule Sylvia Pardo's death a suicide.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Nature Versus Stupidity

Of all of the things that one figures that we'd be done with, the Battle of the Sexes used to rate high on my list. Less so these days, especially after having read online stories about the sex trade fueled by human trafficking here in the United States, and yet another in what seems like a never-ending series of murder-suicides triggered by yet-another jackass who decided that if HE couldn't have his ex-wife, no one could.

I read an article in the Economist (dead-tree edition) that gave a Darwinian take on (among other things) why men are sexually unfaithful and violent. Nothing new - there was an edition of the Joy of Sex that I had for a human sexuality class (Sociology 269, natch [I'm still impressed they got away with that]) some twenty years ago that referred to "men's rape instincts." But no-one, it seems, likes that explanation for things. Either men feel that it reduces them to unthinking and monstrous automatons, or women feel that it lets men off the hook for the evil that they do. But is the other explanation, that men are simply unwilling to live with the rules that they themselves (mostly) created to govern society, any better? I don't know who benefits from the idea that many men are willingly mean-spirited and rapacious.

The fact is, that biologically buttressed or not, people are responsible for their actions - after all we aren't animals. This is the whole gist behind Caesar Milan's "Dog Whisperer" shtick. The dogs simply respond to a given stimulus - it's the people who have to do things differently to drive changes in their animals' behavior, and it is the people who are finally accountable. So why do we accept responsibility for dogs, but not for ourselves?

One way in which men and women are similar is that both groups tend to close ranks in defense of each other, mainly to avoid group de-legitimization. But one way to create a more harmonious society is to be more willing to castigate individuals who act in ways that we've determined are unacceptable. Men don't consciously order up women who've been unwillingly trafficked as mail-order brides (I still don't get that) in a vacuum. They do so within the context of a small group of peers who might actively support that action, but also within a much larger group that knows, but simply pretends that nothing amiss is going on. By the same token, no-one, despite how outgoing, friendly and devoted to his church he is, suddenly decides to murder his ex-wife, her parents, and bunch of uninvolved partygoers out of the clear blue sky one day.* He does it, because, despite whatever positive traits he might have, he also shares with others the opinion that a woman who comes into his life is somehow his property, and any stirrings of independence on her part threatens his self-image and status, and exists within a greater society that encourages, if not actively promotes, that broken way of thinking.

This isn't to say that if the rest of us adopted the properly disapproving attitude, that such things would go away. Sometimes, you simply have to realize that the answer to "Whatever happened to Crazy?" is that it moved in next door to you, or that you started dating it. But most people who pull this kind of garbage aren't crazy. They think that what they're doing is right. And all too often, we let them think that, and then look around telling ourselves we have no idea where they got the idea from.

* Personally, I'm still waiting for the interview with a neighbor who says, "Yeah, we knew that guy was a psycho. We had a betting pool at work as to when he'd finally snap. Asshole cost me 50 bucks."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Was That REALLY Necessary?

I'm watching the news, and the story of the burst water main in Massachusetts played on our local newscast. The keystone of the story was a recording of some poor woman freaking out while she pleaded with 911 to come rescue her. She was screaming and crying as the water began to push her car. Her panic was understandable, to be sure. But I don't understand why it was needed to tell the story. The video of a street turned into a raging torrent while people struggled to control their cars made it pretty clear that they were in a difficult, and likely very frightening situation. A desperate 911 call seemed like overkill.

(And I don't know why they needed to transcribe part of the call in the AP article, either, for that matter.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

You Were Expecting...?

Advocacy groups of the homosexual community are up in arms over Pope Benedict XVI's statement that humanity needed to be saved from homosexual or transsexual behavior, saying that this was as important as protecting the environment.

Um... what were they expecting? While it can hardly be said that the Roman Catholic Church is the only institution with a stake in traditional gender-role stereotyping, I expect the Moon to smack me in the back of the head before the Church says that men and women can take on each other's roles, and that this would meet with their approval. I understand the feeling that the Pope is, in effect, sanctioning the re-closeting of homosexuals and transsexuals, if not the outright criminalization of the behavior, but again, what do you expect? It's a small demographic, and easy to target while the rest of the population looks on. I was unable to find the full text of the pontiff's comments, but I'm willing to bet that he didn't go near the topics of say, divorce or pre-marital sex, which would have driven a wedge between the Church and a much larger segment of the populace. (And is something that the media coverage, in the constant quest for yet another controversy, would be unlikely to ignore.)

And therein lies the rub. For both sides. If enough people are doing (or not doing) something, the Church winds up having to go along, to a certain degree. If "proper" relationships between men and women are imperative to saving the world, one would think that doing away with divorce would get us much closer to that point than forcing the relatively small segment of the population that is either homosexual or transsexual into celibacy or accepting their outward gender. On the other hand, because these communities are always going to be a minority, and not a very large one at that, they're always going to be convenient targets. Expecting the Church to be more accepting of them anytime in the near future is unrealistic.

The Church's advice to a gay or lesbian couple, or a young child who's positive that they were born into the wrong body is always going to be the same: "God is Right, you are Wrong. Pray harder." Those groups should get used to hearing it, in much the same way that the Vatican has needed to become used to being ignored.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Flaky Fluff

"The Lambards are software engineers and former writers for an '80s video game called Car Wars, which spawned a role-playing card game and the magazine Autoduels Quarterly, which folded in 1992. With their three children, the couple also organizes and participates in annual 'filking' conventions, where participants bring renaissance instruments like mandolins and dulcimers and party in their best sci-fi or fantasy costumes."
"The Family That Preys Together" Laura Onstot. The Seattle Weekly, 16 December, 2008

As it turns out, being a science-fiction fan during my misspent youth (Does ANYONE ever spend their youth well?), I'm familiar with Car Wars, Autoduel Quarterly magazine, and filking. Ms. Onstot is clearly unfamiliar with all of the above. A few minutes of searching online would have told Ms. Onstot that the Lambards wrote the card game - the Car Wars video game was programmed by Jim Dramis and that the only thing that the video game and the card game had in common was the name. (I've played both - the video game on the TI99/4A that my parents owned, and the card game on a trip to Japan. I still have my copy of the card game. I'd rather still have the video game.) Or that there is no requirement that filking use renaissance instruments - it's simply (primarily) science fiction or fantasy themed music sung in the manner of folk songs, and you don't need to wear a costume, either. (So for instance, were I to write a folk-style song about autoduelling, that would qualify as filk.) Or maybe even the correct spelling of Autoduel Quarterly - note the lack of an "s."

But, in actually, none of these things are important. The article is about how two generations of the Lambard family bilked an old woman out of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Their ties to the gaming, convention and filking communities are completely irrelevant to the story at hand. Why include worthless details, if you aren't going to get them right?

In a way, it doesn't matter. I know these things, but few other Seattle Weekly readers are liable to know, and fewer still, to care. I guess I think that even free journalism should get the details right, and avoid fluff if it's not going to be fact checked.

Plastic Villians

Okay. I'll accept that it could be considered in poor taste to make Lego Minifig terrorists. (Note that you can't find the offending toy on the British website the article links to. Go to BrickArms' site instead.) But the statement that: "We should be coming together to unite against terrorism, but how is that possible when children are playing with toys like this?” seem a little hysterical and over the top. If kids are going to play with little plastic people wielding guns, what's wrong with throwing in some bad guys? The best villains are the ones who are morally unambiguous. Terrorists sure seem to fit the bill these days.

Don't Hate The Messenger

Christopher Hitchens penned an article in today's Slate, questioning the choice of Rick Warren to officiate at Barack Obama's inauguration, and winds up taking some heat for it in the Fray. Hitchens is a hater, by a rather mild definition of the term. He's an entertaining, intelligent and articulate hater, but he's a hater nevertheless. And this tends to color people's perceptions of his message, sometimes even to the point of derailing it completely. But there's really nothing wrong with his reasoning here. The idea that Rick Warren is perhaps too polarizing a figure for the inauguration is a valid one. Having him officiate at the ceremony may be a purely political move, but the uncynical (and/or perhaps the overly cynical) may come to the conclusion that Obama is using the Warren choice as a way of subtly telegraphing an intention to create an administration that favors those the Warren favors, at the expense of those he disfavors.

It's a reasonable fear, even when it's not accurate. Punishing people for not voting "properly" is a common American conspiracy theory. You'll likely remember accusations that the Bush administration hung New Orleans out to dry after Hurricane Katrina as a way of punishing the city for being a Democratic stronghold. And part of the whole point behind wedge politics is the pursuit of votes from some demographic or the other by promising to send "opposing" demographics into the political wilderness. Obama's "change" rhetoric or none, there are going to be those who understand it to be business as usual, and in modern American politics, that's been coming to mean choosing sides.

You could make the point that Warren's pursuit of a mono-cultural America (in which everyone is an evangelical christian) should be considered more inclusive than exclusive, but there are those for whom such a conversion would never be acceptable, and Warren's rhetoric does lend itself towards the idea that such types are illegitimate, in much the same way that Mitt Romney appeared to make common cause with more mainstream christians by openly questioning the bona fides of non-believers as citizens (it was rumored that Bush senior had more directly said as much, back in the day, but the alleged quote was never substantiated), and perhaps indirectly hinting that it would be allowable to curtail their rights for the good of the nation.

Hitchens also raises the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, implying that this is a similar situation. When Wright pontificated on America's culpability in the deaths of Japanese civilians in World War Two, and loudly exclaimed "God Damn America," people (well, okay, Republicans) were outraged. But, more importantly from a political standpoint, they saw then-candidate Senator Obama's continued attendance at services to be a validation of what they saw as a hateful message - and one directed primarily at them. But if this is true, isn't the selection of Warren by the President-elect a validation of Warren's seemingly low opinion of Jews (for instance)? It would seem, if people are going to be consistent (which, to be honest, they often aren't) that it would be. But most of America isn't Jewish - so if Rick Warren is going to say that Jews "are of less worth and littler virtue" than themselves, it's more easily overlooked. Of course, as with any charge of institutional hypocrisy, this is a hard thing to prove. Wright's critics and Warren's supporters could each number in the millions of people, and still have no overlap between them.

But Hitchens is right to note that "Barack Obama['s...] job is to be the president of all Americans at all times." Surrounding oneself with people who are willing and able to publicly establish hierarchies of worth and virtue doesn't work towards this. An Obama administration, while striving for inclusion, is going to have to keep in mind that some people are going to make assumptions about who he views as his enemies by reading into his list of friends. And so, choosing people who don't give others cause to feel excluded is a good idea. (One would think that Obama would have learned this from the Wright dust-up.) The fact that the bearer of this message may be a hater doesn't make it any less true.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

You Using That House?

So a Florida activist is helping homeless people break into foreclosed homes, even helping them re-break in if a property manager changes the locks. I suppose that it's better than letting them stay out on the streets, but one would think that it would be better in the long run if some sort of program could be worked out. I like that idea myself, but I expect that the liability issues would be enormous. Perhaps I should look into the programs in Cleveland and Atlanta, and see how they manage things. It seems like a good idea. If we could somehow find a way to formalize the practice of letting people stay in empty homes as caretakers, everyone wins. (On the down side, though if people start thinking of the homes as theirs, they might not be too happy to give them up when they're finally sold to someone.) Right now though, it seems that Max Rameau and Take Back the Land are setting people up to be jailed for breaking and entering and trespassing, even if the local police are being fairly blasé about the matter right now. Rameau assures his clients he has lawyers who will represent them free, if they get into trouble. Let's hope they aren't public defenders. On the other hand, Rameau isn't afraid to use his name in a nationwide news article, so it's pretty clear he's not too worried.

A "Real" Winter?

Technically, it's still (very) late Autumn, but Winter has returned to the Puget Sound area. And, as usual, brought the place to a complete standstill. It snows only rarely in this part of the country (and, for that matter, this part of Washington State). As a result, there is very little in the way of snow removal equipment to be found in the area. The price that we pay for not having plows and sanders sitting around unused for years at a time is that more than an inch or two of snow completely snarls the entire area.

Normally, we get what are perhaps best termed "Weekend Winters." The classic example is one, maybe two inches (but usually less) of snow on a Saturday that's then almost completely gone in time for Monday's morning rush hour. You might see some snow in a yard or in a park, but pretty much everywhere else, it's already melted into runoff. This time, we weren't so lucky. It's not liable to warm up for a while, which means that we're going to be iced over for some time.

It's something of an inconvenience, to be sure. But I wonder about the effect that this is having on the local homeless. One of the first things that I noticed, the first time I went into downtown Seattle, was the relatively large number of homeless people. I'm sure that compared to someplace like Los Angeles, we don't have a problem. But being originally from Chicago, I wasn't all that well acquainted with the issue. Not that Chicago doesn't have its share of homeless people, but I'd never seen all that many. In a place where the summers and winters can be randomly brutal (sometimes REALLY brutal) life on the street can easily double as a death sentence. (We had a pair of somewhat morbid sayings: "It's not a 'real' heat wave/cold snap until there's a body count." The body count in question commonly referred to people who never left their homes, or people who didn't have them.) Seattle, with it's much more clement climate, is considerably more hospitable to the involuntarily out-of-doors. While the rainy season is annoying (I'm understating that, I know), it's not immediately lethal in the way a week of 20 below zero temperatures can be.

It's been snowing, off and on, for about 24 hours now. Watching the white stuff float down on the wind, and realizing that it will be next week before the "warm" weather returns, I have the sinking feeling that we might be in for a "real" Winter, this time. At least for a week.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Catalog Of Sins

The scandal now growing around Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has started up a favored pastime of political mudslingers. Adding Blagojevich's alleged crimes and his supposedly flawed character to the Democrat's Catalog of Sins.

Of course cataloging the sins of those not like you, and/or that you don't like, isn't the exclusive province of politics. Everyone who's debated whether Communism or the Crusades has caused more misery, or indulged in heated speculation over whether or not the current state of Black America should be laid at the feet of Slavery or a botched follow-up to the Civil Rights Movement has been sucked into the same trap - myself included.

Having finally managed to see the habit well enough to begin to separate myself from it, I've been reflecting on what causes it. The immediate answer may be the best one, although I do not doubt that there are others. Those who make it a point to catalog the sins of others, from Christopher Hitchens to Dave Sim to Bill O'Reilly, tend to work from a single central premise: "The world would be a better place, but for..." It points to a world that is, in some ways, a living organism, that could heal itself once we remove the "bad stuff" that infects it, as opposed to, say a home, where no one regards the simple act of removing an infestation of termites as the end point of a home improvement project. It also speaks to a simplistic view of morality and/or ethics that says that there are Good people and Bad people, and you know the Bad people because they have done the most Bad things. In other words, once again, we have the search for the easy way out.

I suppose that I have no business being surprised by this. After all, the path of least resistance (and therefore, the least work) is pretty much the way people always do things. Before you jump on me for that statement, recall that there are a number of ways in which one may define the words "resistance" and "work." And not everyone is going to take the short-term view of their situation either. So perhaps it's more accurate to say that people always seek what they understand to be the most efficient means to whatever end they are after - and so this issue is less one of laziness, than of worldview. And what we often has is a worldview in which the problems of the world have clearly defined origins, that are also easily removed - if only everyone else had the sense and the will to do it. It is, perhaps, the ultimate external locus of control.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Feeding the Flames

Here in Washington State, we've decided that we've gone far too long without a Teapot Tempest, and so we've embarked upon giving everyone a cause to remember that favorite conservative cause - The War On Christmas. (I curious to see which side will prevail - Christmas... or the Christians. The Christians have proven more tenacious than I'd credited them, so they might yet succeed in destroying the Holiday.)

Freedom From Religion has posted a sign near the Nativity scene in the state Capitol building in Olympia. It reads:

At this season of the winter solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
Just like Richard Dawkins, it seems, they've "[...] learned using logic and reason isn't enough. You have to be a dick to everyone who doesn't think like you." Of course, to be fair, Bill O'Reilly also seems to have learned this lesson quite well. And his story seems to have brought every Culture Warrior who can hold a weapon out of the woodwork. Not to mention your garden variety rabble-rousers, like the folks who have decided that what Washington State really needs is a Festivus Pole. Even those perennial wackos, the Westboro Baptist Church, have gotten in on the act, laying about them with wild abandon, and pressing for a sign that seeks to attempt to prove that no matter how big a dick that militant Atheists might be, it takes a Christian Church to really bring the hate:
You'd better watch out, get ready to cry, You'd better go hide, I'm telling you why 'cuz Santa Claus will take you to hell. He is your favorite idol, you worship at his feet, but when you stand before your God He won't help you take the heat. So get this fact straight: you're feeling God's hate, Santa's to blame for the economy's fate, Santa Claus will take you to hell.
“Santa Claus Will Take You to Hell.” Westboro Baptist Church
The idea - the one (in my opinion) that really drives the Culture Wars - that the best thing for the United States is to be a single cultural entity, where the "best" culture runs everything at the expense of deliberately marginalizing and de-legitimizing anyone with the temerity to disagree, is going to take us nowhere than over the cliff at the end of the Road to Ruin. The clumsy and ill-considered Washington State policy that created this mess in the first place (and has since been suspended by a moratorium on new and pending requests) needs to be changed. I don't think that there is any way to do this in a way that everyone will consider "fair," so that's not really the consideration. But state policies need to be not only neutral in the Culture Wars, but also avoiding adding fuel to the fires. The cultural arsonists do enough damage without government enabling them.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What the Hell?

So Microsoft created a new tool to upload photographs to one's Windows Live Spaces weblog. It kicked in when I attempted to upload a picture to the blog. Because they killed the old tool, I had to log into a different webpage to sign in again to the Skydrive service to get the new tool to install. That required me to navigate away from the post I was working on, which deleted the post. Now, as you can see from the post on Blogger, it wasn't a very long post, unlike some of my other ones, so I didn't lose much. But forcing someone to navigate away from a post they're working on so you can update a tool on the fly is annoying, and the last straw. I'm done with Windows Live Spaces for now. For the foreseeable future all new posts will only appear on the Blogspot site. Yes, I realize it may simply have been a bug. I don't care.

Blogger vs. Windows Live Spaces. Blogger wins. It lacks some of the bells and whistles, but it's miles easier to use for, well, blogging. (Don't get me started on how hard it can be to indent text in WLS...)

We Get Paid Either Way...

This is great. Thanks, Ben, for pointing it out to me.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Watched From Above?

I was reading the Seattle Times today, and came across an article about a lawsuit launched by an Atheist group over a Kentucky law.

"Of particular concern is a 2006 clause requiring the Office of Homeland Security to post a plaque that says the safety and security of the state 'cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon almighty God' and to stress that fact through training and educational materials."
As you might expect, the this ignited an uproar over First Amendment issues. In case you don't remember it:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Okay - but what I would like to know is: What would happen if they didn't? If Kentucky's Director of Homeland Security followed Shinto (for instance), and nixed the plaque, what would the sanction be? Jail time? Firing? Loss of pay?

If an employee were to blow off the trainings because it's legally mandated that they include an acknowledgment of one's helplessness without God, could they be fired?

What if an instructor said that the necessity of God's help in protecting Kentucky (or the rest of us FROM Kentucky) was not a fact, but only a theory - would they be disciplined under this law?

Those are the questions that need to be answered to really understand what the constitutional issues might be. Many religions have quite rigid prohibitions against making overtures to other faiths - does making someone violate that injure their free expression of their chosen religion? But what if your religion doesn't? Can you be forced into nonexclusivity of worship if both faiths allow it? (Not that Christianity is considered to allow it, but it makes an interesting question.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Silly People, Holes Are For Foxes

So this week, on On the Media, Bob and Brooke haul out an old story about the New Atheists. One of the topics that they covered was the old saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes," and NPR's John Burnett learning, the hard way, that many Atheists are quite offended by the phrase.

It's demeaning to atheists. It's saying that under very dire circumstances or frightening situations, atheists will stop being atheists; they will start believing. And this is really just a wish on the part of the religious, because it's not based in fact.
Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists
But like many things, this is a double-edged sword. For isn't this just another way of saying that no-one, believers included, has the courage to face up to their imminent death?
To ignore issues of faith is to ignore a pretty fundamental part of all people's lives when they're in a hospital, facing death. I'm not saying all people find God, but they certainly do ask those questions.
David Shore, writer and creator of "House"
Personally, I disagree with this idea - mainly because the one time in my life that I was certain that I was going to die (clearly, I was mistaken), I had more important things on my mind than asking questions about issues of faith.

But in the end, perhaps the best response to "there are no atheists in foxholes," is to roll with it. After all, there are no bomber pilots in foxholes, either. Some folks have the foresight to find way to lay the smack down on the enemy without being downrange of live ammunition. Just saying...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Did It Stop the Pain?

This morning, I'm sitting in front of my laptop, near a large window, through which I can see the gray-shrouded Saturday after a Black Friday. And I'm thinking again about the death of one Jdimytai Damour, whom, as you are likely aware by now, was trampled to death. Desperate shoppers literally busted the doors of a Wal-Mart and, in a rashness born of their sheer consumer panic, they trod a man to death under their feet. The recriminations have begun. The police have begun to analyze the security camera footage, searching for guilty shoppers, while those selfsame people likely go about their business, confident either in the incompetence of the authorities to find them or secure in their feeling that so many people (other than themselves, natch) are responsible that none are. And many people that were nowhere near the scene wrap themselves in sanctimony, decrying the savagery of unreasoning cupidity, relying on distance to hide from the decisions that they (and I, too) have made, and for which others have quite probably paid with their lives.

"How could anyone be so desperate for a cheap digital video disc player, a widescreen television set or a substandard - but yet must-have - toy from a sweatshop in some Godforsaken East Asian factory town that they'd fatally overrun an innocent, hardworking, man?" The moralists ask - waiting until they're sure we're watching before they allow themselves to wring their hands piteously.

But, as we all know, intense pain can make one do what one otherwise wouldn't. For those of us who can't attest to this from personal experience, no less an authority than the Bush Administration tells us so. Left to my own devices, I wouldn't have thought that the pain of thinking oneself deprived of affordable consumer goods would have ranked high enough to allow one to justify killing a man, but we all have our breaking points. Just as we all have our own tolerance for pretense. :) (And, yes, I am grateful that yours is high.) And isn't the whole reason for Wal-Mart (and the others, for that matter) to exist to salve the existential suffering that comes from realizing that you cannot claim your dignity or legitimacy unless you can demonstrate that you have enough of the right things?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thoughts, Prayers and Outrage

Wal-Mart, in a statement issued at its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., said: “The safety and security of our customers and associates is our top priority. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families at this tragic time.”

Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death - The New York Times.

Thoughts and prayers. What does that mean, really? Especially in this case. Poor Jdimytai Damour, "hired from a temporary staffing agency and assigned to maintenance work," was trampled to death by crazed Wal-Mart shoppers this morning, who literally broke down the doors to get into the store. Apparently this is so traumatic to everyone who currently shops (Even those shoppers who "shouted angrily and kept shopping when store officials said they were closing because of the death"?) and works at Wal-Mart that the company offers up their thoughts and prayers to each of them, and their families - although nothing it seems, specifically for the slain man or his family. I guess they're withholding them until after the settlement - perhaps that will be their opening offer. (Yes, I'm being unapologetically uncharitable - the heady mix of faux-Christmas hype and random morons does that to me.)

But let's say for a moment that Wal-Mart does decide to offer thoughts and prayers specifically for the unfortunate Mr. Damour. What will be the effect? A memorandum from company headquarters asking for a moment of silence to consider the tragic loss of a temporary worker that the vast majority of Wal-Mart employees would never even have met? A request to commend the man's soul to whatever god an employee might follow? (And what about the atheist employees? Are they required to think harder than everyone else, to make up for not praying?) Is there a CCO (Chief Consideration Officer) who runs Wal-Mart's Thoughts and Prayers Management Office who will see to it that Mr. Damour and his family are properly remembered and are the beneficiaries of adequate supplication to the various divinities in which people profess belief? (Or will they find out what the Damours believe and target their efforts appropriately? Does Wal-Mart outsource the task to India? (I suspect that if they do, their service there may be quite busy, even backlogged, given local events.) And how do we know that it's worked? Will Mr. Damour be more at ease in his afterlife? Do they have someone "on the inside," as it were, who reports back on the condition of the departed souls for which this service is offered? Will his family be less bereft for the company's efforts? Is this something that they track in their annual report to shareholders? What do people's performance reviews look like?

Toys 'R' Us is perhaps in the same boat. They "issued a statement expressing outrage" over The Gunfight in the Toys 'R' Corral today. And the end result of this expressed outrage is going to be exactly what? Will the women whose brawling started the fracas be extra stung? Will the insult of corporate ire make the injury of their bloody noses and dead boyfriends/husbands all the more intense? Will their friends, acquaintances and families drift away, unwilling to risk the anger of the world's largest toy-centered retailer? Will other companies be angry too? Will this mean that Amazon will offer to be their new friend?

And what about the future? Can the company maintain this outrage? And what will come of it if they can? Floggings for unruly customers next year? (I'll volunteer for that duty. Pretty please? With sugar on top? I'll do a good job, really. I'll pay you...) A scowling Geoffrey the Giraffe, stalking the aisles and getting in people's faces? When a company becomes hacked off, does anyone really notice? Or care? Is corporate anger really going to make people think twice about packing heat into a toy store? Or starting throwdowns over the last Batter Me Elmo toy on the shelves? Do we expect that the people who fled for their lives from the sudden firefight to be comforted from knowing that Toys 'R' Us is mad as Hell, and isn't going to take it anymore? Or that it will make the experience less traumatic for the people who work there?

Corporate consolations seem cold comfort, and corporate ire an empty threat. More meaningless words to be piled onto an increasingly meaningless season. You don't have to be a true believer to understand that whatever holiness once created the holidays is long gone. Once upon a time, there may have been a celebration to rejoice in the coming of one faith's savior, but there's little chance that the supplication, consideration or wrath of even the most powerful corporate citizens will be the savior of lives lost and shattered in an ever-growing insanity.

Savage Bargains

Turns out that it's not really a sale until there's a body count. Black Friday, indeed.

Americans are masters of feeling oppressed by penury in the middle of the one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. Marketers take advantage of this by offering "doorbuster" (in this case, quite literally, it turns out) deal on a few selected items, and creating an incentive for people to be the first in line to "save money" to snap up items that they likely would have bypassed under normal conditions. The public responds with excitement and by piling "bargains" into their shopping carts, with little thought and perhaps less restraint. And in the end, no-one is responsible. The shoppers were upset, that even though a man had just been killed, they were being asked to leave the store, and Wal-Mart offered up the standard and meaningless "thoughts and prayers."

I don't know that there is any such thing as a good way to die, but being trampled to death by crazed Wal-Mart shoppers seems like a particularly bad and pointless way to go.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Who's Bad?

Dahlia Lithwick has an article in Slate in which she takes aim at the idea we're better off as a nation if we just let bygones be bygones in our execution of the "War on Terror," and that people who are pressing for prosecutions of Bush Administration officials who okayed things like torture are being naïve, or placing partisanship over harmony. (Side question: Why is it that we lambaste the Japanese when they go out of their way to maintain a harmonious society, while acting as though harmony is the only thing that stands between us an savagery when we feel the need to promote it, regardless how flimsy the reasoning?)

During the piece, Lithwick makes a very interesting point. "Michael Mukasey holds that those who authorized lawbreaking did so out of 'a good-faith desire to protect the citizens of our Nation from a future terrorist attack.' Witness after witness will tell the truth commission that they were scared; they were making quick decisions in the heat of battle, and that their hearts were pure." This may, however unintentionally, be the central issue that we need to deal with.

I have come to suspect that the point behind American jurisprudence has gone from the sanctioning of those who do Bad Things (violate the laws of the land), as a means of preserving order, to demonstrating our power over those that we understand to be Bad People (boogey men), as a means of reassuring ourselves that all is right with the world. Lithwick touches on this when she asks: "Is the truth that if we torture strange men with strange names, it's not lawbreaking?" Replace "strange" with "bad," (or, if you prefer, "evil"*) and I suspect that a lot of people would say: "Yes," regardless of their names. Once the point of the Law becomes to separate the Good people from the Bad people, it takes on a much different character than it otherwise would, being willing to gloss over the transgressions of the Good, and ready to punish the otherwise acceptable in the Bad.

If you read the rhetoric of the Bush Administration in a certain way, the point behind the War on Terror is that terrorists are Bad Guys. And as Bad Guys, they will do Bad Things, and so every moment that you leave them alive and free, you run the risk of some undeserving soul having an awful fate laid upon them. And nothing other than putting and end to their lives and freedoms will change that. And if the law happens to prevent that, more proof that the law was written by people who just don't understand what's really at stake here. It's seductive. It's the flip side of It's wrong to do (or let others do) Bad Things while just Following Orders. Because, if that's the case, isn't it also wrong to allow Bad People to do Bad Things while just Obeying the Law?

* For extra cynicism credit, you can also replace "strange" with "Muslim."

Give Us Your Money... Please?

Maybe somebody at Wells Fargo reads Nobody In Particular, or, more likely, it's just a rather random coincidence. But when I came home the other day (not long after the previous post) I had a message on my answering machine from Wells Fargo, reminding me of the $50.00 bonus for opening a $100.00 checking account. The interesting part about it was the sense of urgency. Not so much in the mode of "Act now, or you'll miss this exciting and important promotion!" - but more, it seemed, along the lines of "Please don't let this offer pass you by - we could really use the deposits."

Not to say that the message was plaintive, or pleading, but it did seem to favor a more "asking" approach than the hard sell that I have become accustomed to hearing from such pitches.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What a Difference...

About a year ago, give or take, I was in a Wells Fargo branch near my home. At the time, they were running an advertising campaign, which one could best title as "Someday." There where flyers on the table near the door. On the cover was a couple, dressed in light winter clothing, with a string of Christmas lights draped over the woman's hands. They were looking about themselves (she to the left, he to the right) with the grinning excitement of children who'd just been given a toy store as their holiday gift. She held a sign. "Someday I could buy all the things I deam about." The flyer was a promotion for a prize, an annuity to be paid off at the rate of $50,000.00 a year for the next 20 years. Basically, any use of a Visa credit card was a chance at winning the prize.

I'd picked up the flyer because it struck me as indicative of the problem with banking at the time. Banks, as I had been raised to believe, were places where one kept money for safekeeping, and perhaps as a sort of investment (I seem to remember promised interest rates being higher when I was a child). So it seemed somehow broken to me to have banks pushing borrowing as a means of funding consumption, which, as we all are now painfully aware, is unsustainable in the long run. Now, I'm not a complete naif. I understand that banking is a business. And that the point behind business is to make money. It's just that this struck me as the bank pushing a program that wasn't in the best interests of its customers, and I was somewhat impressed that they would be so brazen about it.

A while back, I received a flyer in the mail from Wells Fargo. "50 Ways To Spend $50," it proclaimed. On the list were things like a Window box, Cordless phone, Twenty cups of coffee and New Jeans. Not wanting to be seen as promoting nothing but profligacy in difficult economic times, Savings bond and Give to charity also made the list. The pitch was for new Wells Fargo checking accounts. Open one with at least $100.00, the pitch promised, and Wells Fargo would kick in another $50.00. (I find myself wondering what the catch is - after all, the smart thing to do is to open a $100.00 account, wait for them to deposit the promised $50.00, and then close the account, and shift the money to savings. Surely Wells Fargo knows this, and has something in place to prevent such a move, or there are enough fees and whatnot that they're sure to get the $50.00, and then some, back from you no matter what you do. On the other hand, they could simply be that hard up for new depositors that they're willing to take the risk.)

In both cases, the bank seemed to be working to promote spending. But I find it interesting that this time they're pushing you to spend money that they'll give you, rather than money that they'll lend to you.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Populism and Pretense

Congress and the media have been making a big deal out of the fact that the chief executives of the Big 3 automakers flew to Washington, hat in hand, to ask for bailouts in their private corporate jets. Bully for them.

But this is really little more than an exercise in populist hypocrisy. Were I a banker, and a family came to me to have their mortgage renegotiated, and I turned them down, because they had driven to the bank in their own car, rather than taking the bus, whose side would the press and the politicians be on?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Great Bit of Snark...

Courtesy of The Economist.

"And Barack Obama, committed to uniting America, could defuse the nation's culture wars by purchasing an alternative homeland for those of his countrymen who want more use of the death penalty, less gun control and no gay marriage. A slice of Saudi Arabia's empty quarter would do nicely; there's plenty of space and the new occupants would have lots in common with the locals."

"O give me a home..." The Economist. November 15th, 2008

Who Are You

So I get an unsolicited "pre-approved" offer for a MasterCard in the mail today.

They were reasonably upfront about the interest rates. They touted the fact that they didn't engage in Universal Default or Two-Cycle billing. And they listed a whole raft of fees that come with doing this or that - it seemed to be a fairly complete list. And they had a nice selection of different card patterns that you could choose from. And you could sign up for some nice perquisites. And it even has no annual fee (although most cards these days don't).

Only one thing was missing - the actual lending institution.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Smite Makes Right

I was reading an article on Slate a couple of weeks ago: "Does Religion Make You Nice?" It opens with the sentence: "Many Americans doubt the morality of atheists." In the opening paragraph Paul Bloom relates to us that in one of her books, conservative commentator Laura Schlessinger "approvingly quotes Dostoyevsky: 'Where there is no God, all is permitted.'"

I suspect, that one could re-write that as: "Many Americans doubt the morality of humans." Schlessinger's version of morality requires a belief in God because it's not about a commitment to ethical behavior - it's about obedience. The divinely-established morality of conservative religiousity doesn't require any cohesive, objective or independent understanding of right versus wrong. God's will and word is what makes right, and is to be followed, even when it is self-contradictory (despite the fact that "You will not kill" is one of the Bible's famed Ten Commandments, capital punishments abound) or leads to effects that one might otherwise be considered wrong or unethical.

This model operates on an understanding that the divine is in the role of a cosmic parent - someone who enforces discipline on a herd of self-centered, willful children, who might be well-meaning, but are incapable of fully internalizing the rules, and therefore WILL, if not carefully watched, do things that they aren't supposed to - even while thinking that their actions are, if not acceptable, completely justified.

Once you start to equate people with a state of perpetual spiritual childhood, it becomes more evident that morality MUST be an external force, that acts to suppress and control the irresponsible and potentially damaging impulses of the overall populace. And in the face of a controlling force that doesn't routinely (or ever) make itself objectively known (while many people claim to have a personal relationship with the Divine, no-one have ever managed to introduce Him to their friends in person, or get Her to be the guest of honor at their dinner parties) you're going to have people that doubt its existence. And in the same way that a child who doubts that a parent will catch them at anything is more likely to "behave badly," a person who doesn't acknowledge the existence of a punishing deity is unlikely to tailor their behavior simply to avoid divine sanction.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Let's Twist Again

I have finally learned the definition of "twisting someone's words." It appears that the phrase refers to the practice of taking the logic upon which an argument is built, and applying to to a scenario that the arguer doesn't like in an attempt to demonstrate the absurdity of the logic. (Or, more likely, the logical fallacy that the arguer has engaged in.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Save Our Program

Whenever tough economic times require that budgets be cut, you know that there will be a long list of people ready to argue that their pet project or favored cause should be spared the fiscal ax. And some of those people will go out and start looking for allies.

And so it is that I received an e-mail from the local progressive political group. (The Republicans have my telephone number, it seems, while the Democrats have my e-mail address...) It warns that a local county proposal to same money through eliminating family planning clinics for low-income families "is a really bad decision." It continues: "It's penny smart and pound foolish, and carries some terrible consequences."

To illustrate this, it holds out the example of "Karina."

"She was 18 years old and still in high school when she learned she was more than three months into an unplanned, ill-timed pregnancy. After developing diabetes mid-pregnancy, Karina ended up in the operating room to deliver her son.

The birth control to help Karina avoid pregnancy would have cost the County about $10 a month. Instead, this birth and the subsequent medical care needed for Karina and her baby cost the state more than $20,000. Today, a County Public Health Clinic is helping Karina avoid pregnancy until she is in a better financial position.

But the County is looking to eliminate family planning clinics and STD services to balance the 2009 budget."
But the issue for Karina wasn't that the family planning clinics weren't available - the budget cuts haven't gone into effect yet - it's that, from all appearances, that she didn't make use of them until after she'd already had a difficult pregnancy. Why should I care if the county ends a program, even one that only costs $10 per month per recipient, if people aren't using it in the first place? And the e-mail doesn't address what the county clinics would have done about the fact that Karina developed gestational diabetes - somehow I suspect that they would have spent much more than $10 a month looking after a teenager with a high-risk pregnancy. Why would you go around to people asking them to sign a web petition (Go slacktivism!) to save a program, using an anecdote that shows the program isn't even working all that well and likely needs even more money than they're already spending?

And, if you're attentive, you'll notice that it was "the state," not "the County" that picked up the tab for the delivery of Karina's son. So the county cuts the program, saving some amount of money, and the state picks up the tab for the deliveries? It might have "terrible consequences," but it doesn't seem all that "pound foolish." Unless, of course, you work for the state department of health.

Clearly, whoever authorized this e-mail didn't expect it to be picked apart (they may not even have expected it to be read carefully) by the recipients. And I guess that's the problem. The organization expected either that I'd care enough to sign their petition, or I wouldn't. They aren't asking for any personal sacrifice on my part, such as making a contribution to keep the clinics open. They aren't even offering a suggestion as to what other budget areas the county should cut to keep up the clinic funding, which would put me in the position of having to make a choice about priorities. Presumably, asking for sacrifice would entail a more completely thought-out pitch than looking for a knee-jerk reaction.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Pick One

"In a recent Zogby poll, 59 percent of respondents described themselves as 'fiscally conservative and socially liberal.'"
Kathleen Parker
I don't know if the Zogby poll is accurate or not, but I have been hearing quite a bit recently about a growing sector of the population that is in favor of fiscal restraint and small government, and frankly, doesn't give a damn about what other people do in their bedrooms. While I've heard such people described as "socially progressive," I think that "socially apathetic but turned off by invariably hypocritical social reactionaries" is likely a more apt description. Interestingly enough, this points to a certain disconnect between social and fiscal policy that the political establishment is trying to work their way around, without actually acknowledging. The disconnect always struck me as a huge one within the Republican party, where social conservatives tended to look for blatantly statist solutions to the "moral failings" of their peers. On the other hand, the Democrats, while they are socially liberal, sometimes to a fault, seem to have never seen a spending plan they didn't like.

It seems to be that whichever party reorganizes to fit the new demographic the best could be in for a long and productive majority.

Oh, Grow Up

A vandal has been going around Western Washington University, slashing the tires and keying the paint of cars Obama-Biden or anti Bush stickers on them. Only slightly more mature were the reactions in comments section of the story, mainly marked by flames and trolling. It's getting to the point where about the only people who seem to have taken what happened with good grace (rather than wallowing in being sore losers or petty winners) are those who didn't much care about the outcome either way.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Change You Can... Apply For?

The transition team for President-Elect Obama has a web site, Nothing out of the ordinary, but an acquaintance directed my attention to the jobs page, in which you may apply to be a political appointee within the Obama-Biden administration. Or so it says. Somehow, I seriously doubt that any position that requires a Senate confirmation hearing is going to be offered to a complete unknown whose only tie to the Obama administration is through a website where they submitted their résumé. If there are any jobs on Earth where getting the nod is more about who you know than anything else, they've got to be political appointees.

I know that President-Elect Obama has promised a new culture in Washington, but this, I'm not buying. (But I'm tempted to apply anyway, to see if I can learn the real reason behind this process.)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Lesson

"I would think twice about going to a door that we don't know who lives behind."
This is the takeaway that Sumter County Councilman Charles Edens got from the shooting death of 12 year old T.J. Darrisaw on Halloween night? No wonder I didn't get any Trick-or-Treaters at my apartment.

But I would think that the lesson we should learn from this is that paranoid ex-convicts shouldn't be allowed to own firearms. Quentin Patrick, a 22 year old ex-convict, fired more than two dozen rounds "through his front door, walls and windows" after hearing two children knocking on his door. On Halloween.

I've never been a supporter of the Nanny-state solution to violence that says people shouldn't be allowed to own anything remotely dangerous because they might suddenly snap, and go on a multiple-murder spree, but convicts with possible mental disorders (a man who claimed he was Patrick's brother said he believed Patrick was suffering from post-traumatic stress) are something of an exception to my general rule of "let's wait until someone's shown themselves irresponsible before we take the decision out of their hands."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Electoral Lessons

I was over at John McGuinness' weblog, and found a link to "Things I’ve Learned This Election," on Vox Nova, a Catholic weblog. John makes a good point, in that it smacks of more non-productive complaining about how terrible Republicans are - kind of like the people who launch partisan flames in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Sound Off pages by referring to the parties as Repugnicans and Democraps.

"Things I’ve Learned" is an interesting post, but, honestly, overdone. It's all much simpler, and sadly, bi-partisan.

For a vocal segment (which may or may not be a majority) of the population:

  1. Their political stances stem from emotional attachments to positions that make them feel better about themselves and the world around them. They tend to see policies and initiatives they support as being an unmitigated Good for everyone.
  2. They actively, if unconsciously and unintentionally, edit their perception of the world around them, so that they perceive said political stances as objective, fact based and self-evident rather than emotionally comforting.
  3. They are convinced enough of their own sophistication that they believe themselves to be immune to being played for cynical political purposes.
  4. Understanding their politics to be obvious, they refuse to see those who disagree as intelligently, thoughtfully and rationally having come to a different conclusion as to the way forward; instead they see them as stupid, and therefore easily mislead by some cynical and evil mastermind, or as intentionally evil, themselves.
  5. They are apt to understand publicized flaws in people that they support as being overblown, while seeing flaws in the opposition as being the tip of the iceberg, and indicative of much greater problems.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Beginning of the End tells the story of two Obama supporters who were nearly assaulted for showing up at a McCain rally in Florida.

"I had a guy tell me he was gonna kill me," reported one of the men.
This has gotten out of hand. The point that Bill Bishop has been making over at The Big Sort, that we are separating ourselves into mutually exclusive groups, is becoming more and more apparent.
"We read apart, live apart, watch apart, blog apart, and drive apart; we are one country that lacks any shared experiences or, it seems, common purpose."
Bill Bishop

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Abraham Lincoln, 1858
Lincoln, however, did not expect the Union to be dissolved - the house wasn't going to fall. He understood that one side or the other would prevail, and that, in effect, a monoculture would come into effect. It took a war, but the culture of slaveholding was extinguished, and the United States became a Free nation.

Will today's Liberals and Conservatives wage war to eliminate their opposition? And if they don't, how will we return to shared experience or a common purpose? A war with outsiders has never, despite what some people have said, brought this about. During the Second World War, European Axis prisoners of was routinely received better treatment than did black soldiers, or Japanese-American citizens, at the hands of the United States. The war against Communism in Veit Nam seemed to do little or nothing to make us into a single society, accepting of all its members. And a woeful lack of trained speakers of Arabic to help wage the War on Terror didn't keep the military from expelling homosexuals with required skills.

I don't claim to have a spectacular imagination, but I don't know what else would work. As the partisan atmosphere becomes more and more toxic (as people simply recirculate their own air more and more), we've moved beyond looking for solutions to simply looking to assign blame. While it is important to understand the conditions that brought us to the point where we are now, the public floggings of the people who nurtured those conditions (while it may be satisfying) does nothing to change those conditions. We are reaching a point where partisan bickering will take us to a point where we beat each other with fiddles while our home burns around us.

Anyone who has ever attempted to get a quarter-dozen people to agree on all the toppings for a pizza understands the impossible task that lies before anyone who would attempt to forge 300,000,000+ people into a single cultural entity. In very real ways, our society is only as harmonious as it is because we stopped engaging with one another around many important issues.

If there is one thing that is a strike against both Senators McCain and Obama, it's that they didn't have the sense to walk away while they still could. I suspect that whichever of them wins, a year from now, they'll wish they hadn't. Senator Obama is likely to get some time to work with things - he's likely to have a Democratic Congress to back him up - in so far as a Congress run by Democrats can do anything in concert. But the Republicans aren't going to be content to wait out their exile in the political wilderness - sabotage will be the order of the day. You could make the point that even the most strident Republican would back a good idea that came from the other side - but once you've become convinced that simply the fact that it originated with the other side makes it a bad idea, monkeywrenching goes from being contrary to a sacred duty.

In the meantime, the house will become further divided against itself. And I expect that this time, it will fall.

In Defense of Consumerism

Can we PLEASE stop whining about the "consumer economy?" I, for one, am okay with the consumer economy because the alternative is either a welfare state in which a large percentage of the population is supported while they do nothing useful, or one in which everyone works in necessities and infrastructure, mainly standing around doing nothing.

One of the hallmarks of a modern society is that if you add up all the people that you need for necessities (food, clothing, housing, that sort of thing), and infrastructure (roads, law enforcement, power, basic communications, et cetera), you get a number smaller than the total number of people in the workforce. If we all only purchased those items that we really needed - becoming a nation of ascetics, as it were, what would everyone else do for a living? Subsistence farming? And are you really sure that if everyone lived like you, that your job would survive?

I don't get up and go to work every morning because I'm enamored of consumer society. If I don't work, I don't have a way of making money to buy food, clothing, shelter and transportation, and I don't have the skills or the resources to supply all of these things myself without help from anyone else. And I likely don't have the skills to be able to trade with people who are good at it, as I'll be out-competed by people who are better farmers, tailors or carpenters than I. My skills lie in other areas. Areas that, frankly, don't directly keep anybody alive or our society viable. If everyone decides to avoid those things, I lose the opportunity to work. And with that, I lose the ability to pay for the things that keep me alive and our society viable. And so I become a either freeloader or a semi-skilled, make-work charity case - neither of which is good for the culture as a whole.

The whole point behind non-essential specialists in a society is that they support themselves doing things that don't need doing. And in doing so, they invent and improve and innovate. There's a reason why technology advances faster now that it did 2000 or even 200 years ago. I don't know that it's worth giving up, in the name of an ascetic's virtue.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

He's Only One Man

Skinheads were plotting to kill Senator Barack Obama. Really? Never saw THAT coming.

But I think that this story focuses a little to much on the Senator. True, Senator Obama is running for president, but he was also intended to be the last stop on a murder spree that would have claimed the lives of more than 80 people, had it gone off. And given that the attackers presumed that the Secret Service would have shot them full of holes when they actually tried to attack the senator, you could make the case that Senator Obama was never really in any danger.

Of course, given the fact that these yahoos were busted before they'd even gotten around to attacking anyone, you could say that no one was in any real danger. But planning mass murder is still pretty serious, even when the planners are only a pair of rednecks out behind the outhouse somewhere. This seems to be lost in the celebrity angle of the whole thing.

Drip, Drip

I understand why Senator McCain has taken aim at Senator Obama's tax plan. I've never really been on board with the idea that tax policy was an appropriate vehicle for the redistribution of wealth myself. (We'll ignore, for the time being, that once upon a time, Senator McCain was. Legislators are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents. This will, at times, result in a certain level of inconsistency.)

But I don't think that I like the direction in which he has taken his criticism. Mainly because, in much the same way as "trickle down" economics during the Ronald Reagan years, it relies on wealthy people to be the final engines of the economy, and in return for that, it seems to favor the greater concentration of wealth, which, in my opinion acts as an active drag on the economy. Because, in the end, wealthy people hoard wealth. That's how they get to be wealthy people. While Senator McCain says that economic and tax policy should encourage people to create wealth, if you then let them keep all of it, the net result is that everyone else is relatively poorer. And in the capitalist system as we currently practice it, it takes money to make money - and so its mainly them that has, that gets. I don't have a problem with the idea that people want to hoard money. Given the chance, I'd make Fafnir or Smaug look generous by comparison. But part of what got into the situation that we're in right now is the increasing concentration of greater and greater wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and the fact that our current financial and legal structures encourage that.

The other thing that bothers me about Senator McCain's current rhetoric is that it makes work seem too much like charity. If we don't let wealthy people keep as much money as they'd like, they'll stop handing out jobs to the rest of us. While I understand that this is pretty much the way things do work these days, why do we want to encourage that? Why give a handful of people the ability to decide whether the rest of us have viable livelihoods?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

If You Read It...

...On the Interwebs, it must be true.

This is, perhaps, the most incredibly moronic thing that I've come across in ages.

"i won't put a mccain sign in my yard or on my car 'cuz i don't wanna get vandalized or even attacked or having their houses shot up like people are in other parts of the country."
This, based on a story about a Republican headquarters manager in Central Florida who had his home "shot up" (apparently by a pellet gun).
"The Republican manager said he is convinced he was targeted because of new McCain signs he added around his home.
'All I can tell you is this, I have a very good relationship with my neighbors,' Coverely said. 'I mow my lawn. The only thing that has changed is I have two McCain signs in my front yard.'"
I guess we can send CSI home - Holmes here has it all figured out.

Not to get too caught up in laughing at this guy, but don't kids in Florida get bored and shoot things with pellet guns just like kids everywhere else do? While it's possible that some disgruntled Democrat did take it upon himself to pester Rog Coverely by shooting pellets through his windows, this seems like the sort of act of petty vandalism that must happen a million times a week in the United States, election season or not. The fact that this guy can't come up with a better reason than "Democrats are becoming more aggressive," doesn't mean that he's right.

And such a minor incident doesn't mean "this election is turning violent."

Rolling the Dice

I encountered my skip-level boss, our General Manager, in the kitchen Friday morning. I had a talk with him about a career certification that I'm pursuing, and the fact that I want sure if I should gamble the money needed for the examination in such uncertain times. And he asked me a very important question.

"What makes you characterize this risk as a gamble?"
He was, of course, dead-on correct. (After all, you don't get to be a General Manager, if you're stupid, or don't understand why, how and when to take risks.) And as I thought about his question, I realized that I saw the examination as a gamble because I understood the cost, and the potential consequences of that cost, but that I didn't understand the benefits. So the risk matrix looked like this:

Cons: The examination is expensive.
  1. If I don't pass the exam, I've spent money on a certification I won't have.
  2. If the certification doesn't increase my overall employability/earning potential, that's money better saved or spent elsewhere.
  3. The certification comes with maintenance requirements, so if it doesn't lead to a raise, it's a net loss.
Pros: Passing the exam means I get letters after my name.
  1. Those letters could improve my overall employability/earning potential - by some percentage between 0 and x where x is an unknown that may itself be 0.
And therein lay the issue. I can see all of the downsides, qualify them, and understand the consequences if they come to pass. The upsides are basically hopeful things, but I have no way of knowing what the actual benefits will be, unless they come to pass, and I don't have a clear picture of what the likelihood is that I'll come out ahead. And I don't know of an unbiased source of that information. So I feel that I'm risking something, with no idea of how that risk pays off in the end.

To a degree, that is the way of things in our society. Information is power, and people who can keep information from others have an advantage. Bankers are constantly looking at whatever information they can get, to minimize their risks. Working under the assumption that "bad people are bad people are bad people," they want to know how many traffic accidents you've had, if you always pay your taxes on time, where you shop and who else is loaning you money. At the same time, the complex financial instruments that bankers were so in love with until a month ago were deliberately designed to be opaque - to make it difficult for people to understand the risks they were taking. Companies work hard to present a good face to the public, and will sue anyone who says otherwise - even if it's true.

And so, I see myself as blind - unable to see the forces that I need to be able to work within and around if I'm going to succeed in life. And so, confronted with choices, but unable to see the results of making them, I do the rational thing. Shrug, and roll the dice.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


If you haven't heard about "Joe the Plumber" by now, you've been living under a rock. He's the McCain campaign's latest weapon in the fight against Senator Barck Obama and the potential of a Democrat in the White House. I understand the point behind the narrative - that taxing the people with high incomes to fund tax decreases for people with lower incomes, to "spread the wealth" as Senator Obama (somewhat unwisely) phrased it, smacks of Socialism, and seems unAmerican.

It's interesting, but Joe Wurzelbacher the Plumber seems to be the perfect spokesperson for this message. If the news reports about him are to be believed, here's a man who has a lien against his home, for failure to pay about $2,000.00 in income taxes from his home state of Ohio. Yet he's supposed to be planning to purchase the business that employs him - one that makes about $250,000.00 in profits every year. Who on Earth is going to sell a quarter-million dollar a year revue stream to a man who doesn't even have the money to pay the state taxes on the income he already has? Given today's capital climate, who would lend him the money? We've got to be talking at least a couple million dollars here. Granted, this is a business, and not a guaranteed income, like the lottery or something - but still, this isn't something that would come cheaply.

And that, for me, raised an interesting point in Senator McCain's take on this. We're being told that we should oppose the rich (the top 5% of income earners, in fact) shouldering a greater portion of the tax burden in part because we want to make that kind of money one day, and wouldn't want to be saddled with the taxes ourselves. But how many of us can realistically aspire to that?

Another One Bites the Dust

Linens N' Things, unable to find a buyer in the current "tight" (that's an understatement) capital market, is closing its remaining 371 stores. This seems to have been a pretty quick decision - signs posted at the stores say that their most recent newspaper flyers won't be honored - the ones that came out today.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Blame The Parents

Semaj Booker is back in the news again, having received another slap on the wrist after being caught breaking into an apartment. This child is well on his way to becoming a poster boy for "lock-em-up and throw away the key." I've never been one to believe in sentencing juveniles to life in prison for moderately serious crimes, but "the system" really appears to be bending over backwards to place this child back in the care of his admittedly overwhelmed mother, who clearly simply can't manage the child.

But this isn't to say that she should be jailed herself for her failure. I find the comments on the blog posting that seem to imply that Ms. Booker (or whomever is taking care of him now), should be punished to be not only mean-spirited but also simply odd. Andew and Lea Fastow (of Enron infamy) have children. In fact, they argued that they shouldn't have to serve prison terms at the same time, so that one of them could be home with their kids. No-one seems to be concerned that having fraudsters for parents means that the younger Fastows are likely to grow up to be white-collar criminals - who are capable of doing much more damage to our lives than the petty criminal that Booker is likely to become. And no one brings up their parents as failures, and suggests that they be punished for their children's crimes.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Still Being Stupid About Credit

It was only a matter of time. American Express is now scaling back cardholder credit and even closing accounts based on who they received their home loans from, and what stores they shop in, pointing out that these factors may be indicative of default risk. Not quite "fair enough," but I can see the logic here.

“Our credit experience with customers who have made purchases at establishments where you have recently used your card.”
“Our analysis of the credit risk associated with customers who have residential loans from the creditor(s) indicated in your credit report.”
Reasons American Express gave a cardholder for lowering his credit limit.
But this is the one that kills me. "Spokeswoman [Kim] Forde said American Express would not divulge any of the 'establishments' where a cardholder’s shopping might trigger a review." Meaning that you could go shopping at the wrong places, and suddenly find that your plastic isn't any good.

Why aren't we hearing about a mass exodus of American Express cardholders? Visa, Mastercard and Discover should be lining up to poach disaffected AmEx cardholders, and advertising around this night and day. Unless, of course, they're doing the same thing themselves. Didja read the fine print in your contract? No? Sucker!

But aren't we all?

Still Being Stupid About Sex

Okay, because it's been a while, back to sex offenses, and the moronic ways in which we react to them.

Now, police in Ohio have arrested a 15 year old girl on child pornography charges for using her cell phone to take nude pictures of herself, and send them to other people. And here's the kicker: "Authorities were also considering charges for students who received the photos." From another story in the same vein "The Wayne County District Attorney, Richard Healy, [...] did point out that anybody that received those photos, even if they didn't send them along, could be charged for possession as well."

To quote my buddy Ben: "What the fuck?" Okay, let me get this straight. Some random teenage exhibitionist takes naughty photos of themselves with their cell phone, and sends the picture to someone else. Not only are they now possibly on the hook for "juvenile child pornography charges," but so is anyone who receives the photographs? (Personally, were I a defense attorney in such a case, I would file a motion that charges be filed against anyone in the prosecutor's office who viewed the pictures. After all, they had to actively go looking for the pictures.) Why don't we just make everyone in the country sign up for being a sex offender now, and avoid the rush?

Those Wacky Psychotics

More from the Associated Press' "Odd" category...

Mich. 'Crucible' instructor accused of witchcraft
FERNDALE, Mich. -- A man assigned "The Crucible" in an adult education English class doused his teacher with a nonflammable liquid and threatened to burn her as a witch, police said.
This isn't "odd." It's a wake-up call that someone is going to wind up injured or dead if something isn't done for Mr. Najor. He's already admitted to attempting to kill someone by dousing her with holy water. Okay - so holy water hasn't proved fatal to anyone outside of bad vampire novels. But still - here is a man who is attempting to kill someone because he thinks she's a witch. He's 20 years old - this isn't a phase.

The fact that the teacher wasn't killed, and the bizarre way that Najor went about trying to kill her, make it easy to see why the AP labeled this story as "odd." But I think that such a label downplays they seriousness of what happened. This is a man who really needs some sort of mental health evaluation. Had he abducted her, and burned her alive at the stake, this wouldn't be a candidate for news of the wacky. If we're going to rely on the news media to inform us, perhaps its time that we ask them to drop the fluff, take serious items seriously, and save the "odd" label for things that are truly offbeat.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Damn It Feels Good To Be A Banksta

The webcomic Sinfest has never been particularly political or concerned with current events during its run, although that's changed recently. But this strip, I think, really taps into the way that many people are feeling about the recent bailout. But I suggest you get a look at it quickly - before the cease and desist letters start flowing.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What Next

Now that we've committed hundreds of billions of Dollars to keeping the financial system afloat, when do we start breaking up the massive megafinance firms? Not as a punishment, by any means, but as long as they are perceived as "too big to fail," it creates the risk that we're going end up right back where we started. It doesn't make sense to have so much wealth and power concentrated in one place, when ill-considered decisions (or simply risky plays that don't pay off) can sink the entire economy. Right now there are a small set of companies that need us (the public) much less than we need them, and when they get into trouble, we have to rush to the rescue, but they're able to insulate themselves from things that can sink hundreds of thousands of Americans. Any imbalance in accountability like this is a recipe for trouble.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Just How Stupid Are We?

The premise behind this book by Rick Shenkman is a very simple one - if you're under the impression that American representative democracy is in dismal shape, and want to know why, just look around you, at the people you see and work with every day - and you might want to take a gander in a mirror while you're at it. I'm not sure that I agree with Shenkman's use of the word "stupid," as "willfully ignorant" seems to be a more apt description. But "Just How Willfully Ignorant Are We?" makes for a clunky title, so "stupid" it is.

This is a short read, a little shy of 200 pages (in hardback) including a list of sources - this is a book that you can take down on a lazy weekend day. But Shenkman covers a lot of ground. He deals with the general lack of detailed historical and political knowledge that plagues the American public, pointing out in some cases appallingly basic facts that people claim ignorance of in polls and studies. (About 30% of the population doesn't know what the Holocaust was? Really? Only one in five can correctly tell you the number of seats in the United States Senate? A significant portion don't understand that amending the Constitution is the process by which changes are made? Wow.) Despite the huge amount of data at the fingertips of anyone who has a live web connection, many Americans don't bother to reach out and rake the information in. And, of course, where there is political advantage to had in ignorance, politicians encourage it.

After having made the point that the average American voter is ignorant, Shenkman goes on to explain that the electorate's tendency to believe what they want to believe short-circuits their rationality. Conservatives lionized Ronald Reagan, seemingly having forgotten that he ballooned the federal deficit - and they punished George H. W. Bush when he was forced to raise taxes to try and reign it in. Reagen became a myth, and Shenkman deals next with the American fondness for myths, most especially the myth of "The People," which holds that the average American person on the street is wise, intelligent and savvy about what government should and should not be doing. This in turn, segues into the idea of the people should be in control, even though, as Shenkman points out, the public's attention is fickle and tends to deal with very visceral, here-and-now issues, rather than the big picture.

And part of the problem is Television. Despite everything we understand about television, we seem to have a hard time understanding that we can't take everything we see at face value. Television is very capable of leaving out important context, and just as capable of being misleading, yet the public still tends to be uncritical of what they see on the Boob Tube. (Perhaps the biggest myth that we subscribe to is that we are never the Boob being referred to...) Shenkman, a former television managing editor, is able to provide some interesting insight into why even local newscasts are not as informative as one might otherwise think. As television has seemed to sap the collective IQ, politicians have responded by speaking to us at a lower and lower level. Despite the fact that we generally understand that it requires a college degree to have the skills to be middle-class these days, and many of us are involved in work that requires a certain level of technical understanding and education, the average political speechwriter targets their politico's words to a seventh-grade audience - where once upon a time, politicians wrote their own speeches to the twelfth-grade level. But as politics has come to turn more on emotion - facts are discarded in favor of "higher truths" - it has become less important to be eridute than it is to be emotionally engaging.

Unwilling to deal with the facts, and wrapping ourselves in comforting myths, we have difficulty seriously engaging current events and recent history - Shenkman devotes a chapter to how the public discussion of September 11th, 2001 has gone off the rails. Following that is a long chapter on why the myth of The People goes unchallenged - why it's so very hard to get away with the honest critique of ourselves that is required if things are going to change. Politicians flatter the public and attack their opposition by making appeals to "The People," which becomes an impossibly large and amorphous demographic, encompassing those persons that the listener identifies with, leaving out those they dislike, and managing to be a convenient catch-all that is utterly meaningless. The idea that criticism equals hatred, or at least hostility runs high, and so it becomes completely off-limits to criticize "The People."

Here, I'm going to take a little time out from what is already an overlong posting, and make a point. The problem with works that are critical of people, and require them to change is that most of them are never going to allow themselves to come into contact with it. I snagged Shenkman's book off of a grocery store shelf not because I felt the need to understand myself, but because I was interested in his critique of everyone - which meant that I could neatly avoid much in the way of personal responsibility. Being acutely aware that popular culture shies away from criticism of the public (the movies "Starship Troopers" and "V For Vendetta," for example were both made into affirmations of the audience, even though their source materials - a novel and a comic series/graphic novel respectively were indictments of the audience) I gravitate towards same, somewhat secure in the knowledge that I won't feel beaten up on when I'm done. While there were occasions when I realized that I, too, was lacking, I didn't come away with a newfound understanding that I'm a charter member of the willfully ignorant.

The book winds up with a chapter of advice and guidelines for getting out of the trap that many of us have so carelessly walked into. Being that our stupidity isn't a genetic condition, or a result of things simply being too difficult for any layperson to grasp, we can make ourselves into a people educated and thoughtful enough to be active participants in our democracy.

All in all, a read well spent.

But there are some parts of the book worth taking exception to. Shenkman sometimes indulges in shortcuts that don't help anything. "In 1986," he writes "Only 30 percent knew that Roe vs Wade was the Supreme Court decision that ruled abortion legal more than a decade earlier." The only problem is abortion was already legal in some states - Roe vs. Wade established a privacy right, within which a woman's choice to have an abortion could not be outlawed by either the Federal or State governments. Yes, I'm nitpicking (I do that a lot), and also simplifying - this is, after all, a book review. But the misconception that the very legality of abortion rests solely on Roe vs. Wade is incorrect, and based on an incorrect understanding of the decision. Stating things properly is wordier - but when you're clucking at people over their ignorance, feeding their misconceptions is sloppy.

And I disagree with his premise that a rational voter is a cynical one, treating any utterance by a candidate that might be suspect as a lie, designed to garner votes. While George H. W. Bush's pledge of "No new taxes" may have been ill-advised when he said it, for the public to not have bitten his head off when he broke it seems to say that one should expect random falsehoods from candidates about their plans, or that we shouldn't expect them to refrain from unworkable promises.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

All We Need To Know

Am I the only person who feels that media coverage of the latest Wall Street turmoil and the efforts to pass the "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008" has been lacking? I can't escape the feeling that we're being told over and over again that it's important that this thing pass, and the airwaves are full of dire warning of the consequences, but the entire scenario is no less opaque than it was when President Bush warned us that the Sky was falling and Henry Paulson submitted a plan that explicitly rejected any sort of Congressional or Judicial oversight of the Treasury Department's relief efforts. At the same time, this whole thing is often described as Wall Street foisting off $700,000,000,000.00 of their mistakes onto the taxpayers (who we are made to feel are just us ordinary joes, even though Wall Street executives and large corporations pay taxes, too) and walking away clean. The Anglican Church has weighed in on the plan, complaining that it would only take "$5 billion to save six million children's lives." and that "World leaders could find 140 times that amount for the banking system in a week." The Archbishop of York clearly doesn't understand that the EES money isn't meant as a giveaway, in the way true charity is supposed to be, but as an investment that could be reasonably expected to return at least some of the money. But since very few other people seem to either, I suppose it's only to be expected.

A lot was made of the fact that the Dow had its single largest one day POINT drop in history. But that's because there were more points to drop. In percentage terms, more of an absolute measure, the drop was the 17th largest. Still a big deal - but not the biggest catastrophe in the world. But the coverage seemed tailor-made to get people running scared.

In the end, I want the facts, just the facts, and a decent amount of the facts - and then I want to be able to make a semi-informed decision on whether or not this really is a good idea, or as urgent as we're being told that it is. Of course, it's really not possible to go from Zero to Educated in this way in a short span of time. And that's the problem. A whole raft of factors and interests have banded together, through both chance and design to render the whole system so opaque that the only thing that anyone seems able to say now is "trust us." And that's hardly been a plan with good outcomes in the past. So, as John McGuiness so correctly points out, "people need something to demonstrate that we’re not being played for suckers."

But I don't think that we'll ever see that, because I suspect that we ARE being played for suckers. And while the financial press seems to be telling us that we're not being duped, they aren't doing so in such a way that allows one to independently reach that conclusion. Although I suppose that its more accurate to say that the game has been rigged so that if Wall Street loses, everyone loses (while also allowing Wall Street to win while millions of us lose). But it's also true that Wall Street isn't a single entity, any more than "Main Street" is, and to a degree, this mess is something that we would have seen coming, if we hadn't been so busy trying to line our own pockets with what we decided was free money. In the end, our financial system is choking on the very mechanism that it designed to keep up a continuous transfer of wealth up the food chain. Yes, It's going to be painful to press the reset button, but forestalling that isn't going to help the hoi polloi any - and the pain will just be that much greater when it actually does require pressing.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


What does it mean for a candidate to "Approve this message?" MSNBC's FirstRead blog points out that the McCain Campaign released a web spot with the boilerplate candidate approval message - even though it was literally impossible for him to have seen it prior to airing, as he was still on stage at the debate from which comments in the spot are taken...

Oh, That's Just GREAT...

Now, the pirates have tanks... But I suppose the most important question is who's the rocket scientist that decided to send a shipment of hard-core military hardware into some of the most pirate-infested waters on the planet undefended? You'd think someone would have piped up with "Crave pardon, milord, but this isn't the smartest way to go about this."

The Nature of the Beast

“We make a terrible mistake believing we have to find something wrong with the people we won’t vote for.”
“You can’t tell someone else that ground on which they make their voting decision is irrational. We can’t tell anybody they don’t know what they’re doing because they vote for candidate X instead of Y.”
President William Jefferson Clinton
Both of the statements above were quoted in the "Trailhead" blog on Slate. In this particular posting, Christopher Beam makes a very interesting point after the second of these - "That’s actually a good description of what campaigning is." I suspect that this actually applies to both of the lines from President Clinton's recent statements that I've quoted above. Both of these statements were made after Senator Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic nomination for president had failed, and it's quite interesting to note, when the campaign was still going on, how vocally Clintonistas (one of their more flattering nicknames) found something after something to be very wrong with Senator Obama and claimed that it was irrational to the point of lunacy to vote for him. And of course, the Obamamaniacs returned the favor, round for round, without any high-profile chiding over it.

And, for those of you who may have been living under a stone somewhere, the general election campaign is shaping up in much the same way, with the partisans on both sides digging their trenches deeper and deeper and seeking to drive their Hate Train of choice straight through the other side's living rooms. It's been like this for as long as I can remember - dating back to the Carter administration.

Of course, this goes far beyond politics. You can understand each and every choice we make about or between people to be a vote of sorts, and people constantly seem to feel the need to find fault with the people they don't "vote for."