Sunday, February 24, 2008

Prince of Hate

"God hates soft men. God hates effeminate men. If I was in a drugstore and some guy opened the door for me, I'd rip his arm off and beat him with the wet end."
Ken Hutcherson, pastor - Antioch Bible Church, Kirkland Washington
Wow. At this rate, Christopher Hitchen's next anti-religious screed will pretty much write itself. As well it should. American Christianity has a problem in the fact that within its community lurk some really evil, nasty people, who understand that they have divine sanction for spreading hate. They are tolerated because their message - that there is a different set of rules for Christians who, as the "chosen people," are special - makes it easy to see them as only a problem to "bad people."

And to a degree, they're right. After all, even Rwanda during the height of the Genocide was a safe place to be - if you were an extremist Hutu.
"[Art] Caplan draws a wise lesson from the Nazi doctors: Beware the human weakness for moral rationalization. But part of that weakness is the illusion in each of us that we have escaped it."
William Saletan ("Natural-Born Killers" Slate Magazine, 4 April, 2005)

Fear and Outrage

"Hard cases make bad law." Criminal Justice truism.
Ben turned me on to a story about the fight over compliance with a federal sex offender law in California.

The federal "Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006," would require states to submit information on adolescents as young as 14 deemed delinquent in juvenile court of aggravated sexual abuse to a national public registry, and it provides penalties for non-compliance - the Attorney General can reduce the federal Byrne funds allocated to the state for law enforcement resources. (The article mentions a 10% reduction, but I don't know what the actual cut might be. For that matter, I don't know what "Byrne funds" are.) One thing that I'm curious about is the definition of "aggravated sexual abuse." According to the article: "If a 14-year-old touches an 11-year-old’s penis, the 14-year-old would be eligible for the public registry." THAT'S "aggravated sexual abuse?" Really?

The fear of sexual abuse of children by strangers, fueled by the (very) occasional high-profile child abduction, rape and murder has got people falling over each other to seek tougher and tougher sanctions, to show everyone that they're doing something about this intolerable scourge. And it's made me realize something. The very next time someone brings up the War on Terror, or the fact that people throughout the world are starving, and asks: "Where is the outrage?" I'm going to answer: "At sex offenders." Politicians may be conniving bastards, but they aren't stupid. You can't get any momentum up for impeachment proceedings against President Bush*, but you can get new sex offender laws passed on shakier evidence than you have against the Executive Branch. Misguided wars against heathen foreigners don't drive outrage in the Heartland. (Especially if we think they have something we want.) Fear of unapproved sexuality does. That's why President Clinton had to face the music for the Lewinsky affair - which, let's face it, was an absurdly trivial thing.
"Supporters of the law argue the high cost of putting the act into effect is worth the safety of the community."
Is Ricky Really a Sex Offender? - Los Angeles CityBeat
This reminds me of another truism - "Nothing is too expensive to the man who doesn't have to foot the bill himself."

* For my part, I don't think that a charge of intentional deceit would hold up against the Bush Administration, and I don't know that willful ignorance of reality is an impeachable offense. But if banging the interns IS, I don't see why it shouldn't be.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Moral Futility

China is enticing expatriate Chinese stem-cell researchers to go back by setting them up with cash, homes, cars and lab space. Sweet deal. It turns out that the government there isn't conflicted (at least publicly) over stem-cell research. Although it's interesting, but not at all surprising, that they don't allow them to be used for reproductive purposes. One wonders if the Chinese won't eventually start recruiting non-Chinese researchers to go over and work.

This is going to be hard on the pro-life movement here. They can keep such research from being labeled as ethical enough to go ahead, but only here in the United States, and possibly only at the Federal level. If the Chinese make any therapeutic breakthroughs, you can be sure that Americans will want access to the new treatments - and given the fact that people are already showing a willingness to travel to India for cheaper medicine there, they're unlikely to stay on this side of the ocean if new life-saving measures can be had at the end of a flight to Hong Kong. American bio-tech firms that don't partner up with China risk being shut out - those that do seem likely to run the risk of being censured by China's critics in Congress. In the end, I suspect the money will win out.

But all of this brings up an interesting point. Of how much worth is a unilateral moral stand, when in the presence of people who are perfectly willing to go ahead regardless? Is personal blamelessness, in and of itself, worth aspiring to?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

No Parking Zone

Given how often we're clubbed over the head with stories of christian charity in the United States, there is a certain sad irony to the fact one of the groups that called for the city to do something about Seattle's "rolling slum" (a colony of homeless people that live out their vehicles in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood) is Mars Hill Church. Blessed are the poor, until they take up choice parking spaces, neh?

(As an aside, I find it interesting that Mars Hill Church is the only organization mentioned by name as having complained about the mobile homeless in the area. It should be interesting to watch the column for the next few days or weeks, and see if Mr. Westneat reports the church or its supporters as being critical of him for that, or if they ask for a more nuanced story to be presented.)

Scarlet Numbers

Washington State Republican Senator Mike Carrell is sponsoring legislation to mandate that people convicted of Driving Under the Influence have to purchase bright yellow license plates for their vehicle, and display them for the first year after their driving privileges are restored. Needless to say, there has been some controversy surrounding the idea, and not everyone is a fan.

"We view alcohol problems as an illness, so why don't we shame someone for kidney stones? Why don't we say, 'Suck it up, pull up your bootstraps and get rid of those kidney stones?' "
Patrick Hart, Seattle psychotherapist and substance-abuse counselor.
The comparison here is misplaced. There is no drive to shame the entire population of alcoholics - no one is proposing that simply having a drinking problem should mean special plates on one's car. And alcoholism, like kidney stones, can be considered an illness, while DUI is a behavior, and is pretty much separate from the disease of alcoholism. A person can be driving a car with more than the legal limit of alcohol in their bloodstream without being an alcoholic, and a person can be an alcoholic for decades without ever having been intoxicated behind the wheel.

Hart is correct in that its unrealistic, and perhaps even patently unfair, to expect alcoholics to just up and quit cold turkey. But in some quarters, this has metastasized into an overall understanding that alcoholics are so helpless in the face of their disorder that they can't even be expected to take the simplest steps to avoid hurting others. Hart notes, correctly, that "[... T]here's no evidence that anyone ever said, 'I am going to go out and get a DUI.' " But I bet that you could find plenty of instances where someone said, "I'm going to go over to this cool bar I know and have a drink or two," with the understanding that they were going to drive over there, and without having made a plan to get home without having to drive back.

There are any number of objections to special plates for DUI drivers. Like the fact that they're unlikely to be of any real use to other drivers, outside of making them feel a little more prepared, and therefore, aren't worth the expense of putting the program in place. You're unlikely to see special plates on an oncoming car before he crosses into your lane. And defensive driving means keeping an eye on everyone on the road, not just the one guy with the special plates. Or, the obvious one, that Senator Carrell's bill seems more about punishing people who have already served their time than it is about public safety. But I don't think the idea that it's not helpful to the DUI drivers themselves holds much water. After all, prison is hardly an environment that helps car thieves learn new job skills.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On the Imperfaction of the Geological Record

In this chapter, Mr. Darwin hangs out with some noted geologists of his day, and explains to us why it's unreasonable to expect that every animal that ever walked the Earth should have left behind perfectly preserved fossilized remains for scientists to be able to put together an exacting family tree of the whole of Earth's lifeforms.

This is another chapter that is made more interesting because of the fact that it was written a century and a half ago. There have been a number of advances in geology and paleontology since then, and I suspect that if he suddenly found himself in the modern day, Darwin would have a hard time deciding if he wanted to be a geneticist or a geologist. Darwin's understanding of geologic processes is limited by the limited access to the world that he has, which gives one an expanded appreciation of the world as we know and understand it today. The ability to see the past of the entire world, which we take for granted now, was completely beyond the science of the time. I'd like to see what Darwin would have done with it.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Bad Cop, Worse Cop

You may recall that I'd gotten up on my soapbox about a number of sex offenders that had been forced to live under a bridge by idiotically restrictive county laws mandating where sexual offenders could live. This has gotten a fair amount of play in the news. So now, "The state is trying to dissolve a community of sex offenders living under a bridge that includes a gym, kitchen, living room and two dogs." Let's see if I understand the situation correctly.

"A 2005 county ordinance prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any school, so nearly the entire county has become off-limits to them. [...]

"How much of Miami-Dade County, exactly, does the 2,500-foot ordinance cover? Pretty much all of it, according to a map produced by the county and distributed to police and newly released sex offenders. It shows schools in the county — private, charter, and public — each with a colored blob around it representing the 2,500-foot sex-offender no man's land. The blobs cover the map; the only open patches are Miami International Airport, a few farm tracts in the Redland and near the Everglades, and, perhaps ironically, much of the well-to-do town of Pinecrest, which is protected from most sex offenders by property values instead of ordinances. (Sex offenders, like any other kind of felon, overwhelmingly tend to be poor.)"
Sex Offenders Set Up Camp - Miami New Times
Unable to afford Pinecrest, and legally barred from most of the rest of the inhabitable part of the county, the poor sods began to wind up under a bridge of the Julia Tuttle Causeway. But now the state has decided that this situation is unacceptable. So the men are being told to leave the area. Which means a de-facto eviction from the county. Of course, Florida isn't being entirely unhelpful. They "provided the sex offenders with a four-page list of about 50 potential residences that don't violate state or local laws." Of course, none of them are located with Miami-Dade county, since the county's rules make pretty much the whole area off-limits. And at least some of them, like a Motel 6, claim to have had no idea that the state was directing sex offenders to them to find housing.

And those that decide that they don't want to leave the county in the face of the de-facto eviction order?
"We have reviewed it all the way from the Constitution down. You cannot arrest someone because they do not have a place to live. That would be a violation of the Constitution."
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary James McDonough
Am I the only person creeped out by the fact that so much effort went into attempting to find way a legal way to arrest someone for simply staying in an area where they are forced to be homeless by a bad law?

Stay tuned. Right now, Miami-Dade is the only county with the 2,500 foot school exclusion zone. But you can wager your last money that more likely sooner than later, Broward, Monroe or Collier Counties is going to write their own exclusion rule, designed to push Miami-Dade sex offenders out - especially if an ex-convict exiled from Miami-Dade offends there. If enough counties mob the bandwagon, there will be a court challenge, which should tell us if such bad-faith schemes are legal. Any bets on the outcome?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Money Well Spent?

By the end of this year, the United States will spend upwards of $500,000,000,000.00 on defense - not counting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has been billed as more money than every other nation on the planet. Combined.

Okay. Simple question. Could the United States military win a stand-up fight against the combined militaries of the rest of the planet? Then exactly what are we getting for our money?

Now, there is the question of whether that half a Trillion dollars is all in domestic spending, or if it covers money that the United States spends so that other countries don't have to. Still, that's an awful lot of money, and one wonders what the final ROI is.

The Osama Youth

They say that the moment you bring up Hitler or the Nazis in an online discussion, you've effectively lost the argument. But what the hell, I'm going to bring them up anyway. I learned on the radio yesterday (and heard again this morning on television) that al-Quaida is now training children and teens to be fighters. We're supposed to be frightened by this new front in the War on Terror.

But in World War Two, when the Third Reich began putting children on the front lines, it was (and still is) seen as proof that they were do desperate for manpower that anyone who could hold a gun was being sent off to get themselves shot, and people felt sorry for the poor bastards, who were suddenly expected to be soldiers when they should have been hitting the books, playing with toys, or learning to shave. Why don't we view al-Quaida's recruitment of children as proof that they've run out of adults stupid enough to get themselves killed in a hopeless cause? (I mean really. It's hard to watch the GMA video, and listen to what's clearly a pre-pubescent child spout Islamic slogans, and take the kid seriously as a threat. We can barely bring ourselves to take ten year old gang members seriously, despite the fact that most inner-city schools have tighter security than most banks.) When the Hitler Youth hit the front lines, or were being pressed into service as fighter pilots, pretty much anyone with a secure hold on reality understood that the Nazi regime was circling the drain. So why are Moslem children barely taller than their weapons being billed as a sign of al-Quaida's strength?

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed [and hence clamorous to be led to safety] by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." H. L. Mencken.
Al-Quaida has taken on a reputation (fostered by the current administration) of being homicidal supermen, hiding under pretty much every rock you care to lift with a knife, gun or bomb, just waiting to murder an American. On top of that, everything they do, no matter how poorly it turned out for anyone else who tried it (like using children as soldiers - which has been something less than a rousing success in sub-Saharan Africa, for example), is seen as the pinnacle of evil cleverness. The reality is nothing close to this. While there have been a few high-profile successes since the attacks on the World Trade Center, it's a pretty safe bet that the gangs of Los Angeles did a better job of murdering western civilians last year than al-Quaida did. While there are people (Moslem and otherwise) who view this fact as a reason to claim that all reports of Islamic terrorism are trumped-up lies, a more reasonable stance might be that Islamic terrorism isn't anything near the threat that it's often cracked up to be.

Who, Us?

Well, so much for Super Tuesday - at least on the Democratic side. While Mitt Romney's campaign was a casualty of the "mass primary," there seems to have been a vast conspiracy to even out the delegate count between Senators Clinton and Obama. Which means that yard signs have been popping up like so many mushrooms here in Washington State, and a couple of blocks away from the main Microsoft campus, people were handing out flyers to motorists stopped at traffic lights. There was even an NPR story on it, from which I learned that John McCain is going to be coming to visit. (I guess the days of Washington being mostly a campaign ATM are over - until Sunday, anyway.) Most people, including me, had written off the Washington caucuses (this weekend) and primaries (just under a fortnight away) as completely moot. It was kind of nice actually. I'm one of those cynical types who believes that you can tell a politician is lying because you can see their lips moving, and campaign seasons have always been a long "truth free zone" in my not-very-humble opinion. But it looks like we were wrong, and I'm doomed to living the next few days in a "battleground" state. With any luck, it's too late for advertising buys.

I don't think that I'm going to the Caucuses this year. I've been there, and done that, and I'm not in a hurry to repeat the experience. I'm also not particularly enthused about anyone in the race this time around. I'm not sure that I could bring enough bread and cheese to go with all the whine that comes with the Democratic Caucus (trust me on this), and since I gave up religion for Lent, I don't think that the Republican Caucus is going to be any more my speed.

Sam Reed, Washington's Secretary of State, has been trying to drum up interest in the primaries. This put him on the wrong side of the Chairman of the Washington Democratic party, Dwight Pelz (well, the fact that Reed is a Republican was enough to do that, but anyway...). Reed's point is that primaries allow more people to participate. Pelz' issue with this is that the Democrats aren't going to select any delegates based on the primary (the Republicans are going to assign delegates almost evenly between their caucus and primary), and so by encouraging participation in the primary, Reed is attempting to disenfranchise people. It's a common refrain among the local Democrats. Something as simple as a clerical error (no, seriously) has been seen as a hateful conspiracy to keep people from exercising their right to vote. (Not that this will keep Precinct captains from starting the caucuses on time or even a little earlier if they suspect that latecomers will support candidates that the captain themselves don't favor. {Once the caucus has started, newcomers are turned away.})

I think I liked it better when everyone was convinced that it would all be said and done by now.

Sunday, February 3, 2008


I'm really not sure what to say about this chapter. It's long and dense, and more than a little confusing. I read it more than once, and didn't understand it any more the third time than I did the first. Darwin mainly talks about the ease or difficulty of making certain crosses. There seems to be very little about how evolutionary pressures or forces impact on this, and so overall, the chapter seems sort of out of place. This is, I suspect, another place where access to modern genetic science would have made Mister Darwin absolutely giddy. Being able to decode genomes, as we are today, I would think that we have a much better understanding of why certain crossbreeds work, and why others don't - which combinations are simply non-viable from the start, which ones result in catastrophic defects that doom the developing embryo and which ones result in viable, if not always fertile, offspring.