Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Slants and Angles

In the wake of the unrest in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama's visit to the United States, Chinese students in the US are feeling that the Western (read: American) media has an anti-Chinese bias. Their reasoning for this seems simple enough: That American reporting of these events tends to elevate the Lama and the Tibetans at the direct expense of the Chinese, who often come across as the villains, and it doesn't take into account Chinese and Asian history, as understood by the students.

It is, to a degree, a fair charge. The "Western Media" tends to espouse liberal western values, and "China" doesn't. (Referring to the Western Media as though it were a single monolithic entity makes about as much sense as the idea that all Chinese think alike.) This does make the Chinese government into an easy target for outlets looking to burnish their democracy and human rights credentials. Another easy target is the government of Sudan. There are a lot of countries whose more nationalistic citizens would take exceptions to the portrayals of their nations on CNN, ABC or Fox News. (Russia comes to mind.) And it's a safe bet that when some copy editor for NBC cranks out another story about human rights abuses in China, that they don't stop to consider that Chinese who read these stories might feel hurt by the critical tone. Would it make a difference if they did? I don't know - the answer might well be: "Hey, the truth hurts sometimes." Americans have had enough of their own cherished stories torn down to be familiar with that. There is an entire industry devoted to telling us about the true facts of history. And it does seem that history's become a moving target. Anyone who dares say that the history they learned in school was free of careful revisions, self-serving omissions or even outright inaccuracies (sincere or not) would be laughed out of town. One commonly forgotten aspect of the Culture Wars is over the way American History should be taught - the battle over the right balance between extolling the times when America lived up to the ideals of its founding, and calling out the times that it failed.

Of course, it's not impossible to find more "neutral" news sources. But it does take some looking, as the big players present things they way they do because that's what gets eyeballs.

Monday, April 28, 2008

You Go, Mister

I'll admit - I'm somewhat inconsistent in the positions that I take on things versus what I respect in other people. For myself, I'm a firm proponent of the idea that if you give a man a fish, all you wind up doing is teaching him to depend on you. Much better, says my reasoning, to teach the man to fish, so that, as the saying goes, he'll eat forever. (Then you introduce him to a tailor and a carpenter who like fish, so that he'll eat clothed and sheltered from the elements.)

Be that as it may, I have to give props to one Bill Pond. Mr. Pond goes up to Seattle's Capitol Hill two evenings a week, and hands out soup and sandwiches to the homeless up there - although he doesn't put up with rude people. Although it's something that I wouldn't do myself, I have immense respect for what Mr. Pond is about. We need more people like him around. And as much as I normally dislike the fluffy human interest stories that newspapers use to fill space, I'm actually glad the Times took the time and space to print this.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Candid Camera

The United Kingdom has become a surveillance state beyond anything approaching reason - one community council used covert surveillance to verify that a family lived in the proper school district for the school they sent their 3-year old to. So while England is a very nice place to visit, I'm now convinced that I'd never actually want to live there. I'm waiting for the place to become the Truman Show, or something.

But the United States might be getting just as crazy... but the feds are also cheap, so they're not bothering to install their own cameras. They just tap the people who made the cameras that you have, and say "Hey, turn that on." The FBI has been able to monitor people by having General Motors turn on the microphone in their OnStar systems so they could covertly listen in. As law-enforcement takes a stance of crime preemption, rather than just criminal investigation, they're going to be looking for more and more ways of monitoring people who might be criminals. And, let's face it, just about anybody can come up with a means and a motive to do something illegal. So I suspect that we're going to see more and more monitoring in the name of public safety and security.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ready, Fire, Aim

Three New York police officers were acquitted by a judge on all counts in the death of Sean Bell, who was killed after leaving his bachelor party at a strip club. This was a predictable outcome, mainly because such trials tend to focus on the narrow question of: "Did the officers have reason to believe that their lives were in danger?" Disproving that sort of assertion would require either a confession or some REALLY incriminating video.

After the Amadou Diallo shooting, nearly ten years ago, I was reading a paper that pointed out something that doesn't normally come up in these situations. While the police officers reacted in accordance with their training, when Diallo reached for his wallet (since it could have been a gun), if they'd followed their training up to that point, they wouldn't have been in such a vulnerable situation in the first place - that is, they would have been able to take the time to discern whether or not Diallo was armed without being sitting ducks if he had been.

I'm willing to bet that a similar situation unfolded with Bell. If officers were trailing him, because they thought that he or his friends might be armed, why didn't they take better care to not be in a position where he'd have the drop on them if he drew? Their sloppiness put them in a position where deadly force could have been the only thing keeping them alive. But that's not a criminal offense - but the fact that it seems to happen every couple of years should prompt us to look more closely at this, less sexy aspect of these shootings.

Another failure of training (or perhaps of standards) in this case is verifying the target. One of the officers shot a high-capacity semi-automatic dry, reloaded, and nearly emptied the magazine again (a total of 30 rounds), once another officer started firing, never realizing that no one was actually shooting at him. American soldiers in Iraq have complained that Iraqi soldiers tend to fire indiscriminately, not knowing what they're supposed to be shooting it. Sadr City is crawling with insurgents - New York isn't. If there is an expectation that barely trained men in the midst of what is arguably a civil war exercise basic fire discipline, why don't we expect the same of professional police officers when civilians are present?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Feeling the Heat

Another side effect of the "Mortgage Meltdown:" people torching their properties for the insurance money. Should have seen this coming. I believe the rule is that you have to have the home insured for enough to cover the mortgage, so if they don't catch you... (Hint - removing all of your expensive home theater gear before the fire makes you a suspect. Just saying.) But I guess it's still not very widespread, which is why there isn't a lot of coverage yet. But I suspect that we'll start to see more arsons as people try to find a way out from under a crushing mortgage that leaves their credit intact.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Joke of the Week

"The Pope celebrated his 81st birthday at the White House this week, so we ask our panelists: What did President Bush get the Pope for his birthday?"
"Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me"

"He gave him a particularly big and tough and rangy and hard to ride Texas horse; because this horse is famous throughout Texas for separating the men from the boys."
Humorist and author Roy Blount Jr.

Listen to Blount tell the joke in front of Wait, Wait's studio audience. Nearly as funny as the joke itself is the ripple of understanding racing through the audience.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Love is Gone

I was listening to "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" by Aretha Franklin today. This song, written by Clarence Paul, Morris Broadnax and Stevie Wonder is listed by the Rolling Stones as music that was important to them. And I can see that, it's a great song, and Franklin's vocals give you the idea of the heartache she feels after her lover leaves her.

But it's an interesting sign of the times. What, back in the day, was considered a model of love and devotion to someone, would now be a one-way ticket to a restraining order.

Dead End, PA

"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Senator Barack Obama (D - Illinois)
I guess it's a sign of age and cynicism that I completely agree with him. People whose communities have been in steady state of decline often do become angry and bitter about that. Progress in other areas and the empty promises of politicians do nothing to combat that. I mean, when has any politician ever managed to turn back the clock, and bring back the well paying trades that used to dominate blue-collar America? And when in dire straits people tend to turn to external factors for either something to blame, something to save them, or something to comfort them. And this isn't always a positive thing. I understand the admonition against ever criticizing your audience, but sometimes what we want to hear about ourselves and the truth of the situation just don't meet in the middle.

The Foodie Blues

I'm a terrible cook, primarily because I have no patience for the activity, and derive no enjoyment from it, even on those rare occasions when I luck unto something that actually winds up tasting good. This provides a positive disincentive to spend more time in the kitchen, so I remain a terrible cook. But I've always had this nagging feeling that I should learn to cook, if for no other reason than it's healthier to make things yourself, using fresh ingredients. It's a lot easier to cut back on the chemical preservatives and salt that way.

And it's also cheaper. While it's obvious that making food yourself is cheaper than having someone else make it for you, I'd never really stopped to consider how much cheaper. But it turns out that the rule of thumb is that a restaurant shouldn't spend any more than 32% of the menu price of a meal on the actual raw materials that go into making it. Somehow, knowing that makes some places that seemed to be just a little overpriced before now seem like sheer highway robbery. But it also helps quantify the cost-benefit analysis of learning to be kitchen-competent. (It also makes your really wonder just what's in some of these ultra-cheap pizza deals you see on television.)

With the price of food rising, restaurants that don't want to visibly increase their prices have come up with some remarkable ways of hiding the fact that they've trimmed the amount of food that patrons get for their money. Using smaller plates, or using cooking techniques that make the food appear larger seems to be a no-brainer, but it would never have occurred to me to buy lighter tableware so that the food feels heavier. Which I suppose adds another incentive to cooking at home - a marked reduction in gamesmanship.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Articles of Over-Simplification

There is a recurring guest column that appears in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called "Articles of Faith." This week, Mr. Robinson, a Christian minister, takes on the Dalai Lama's message of compassion, selecting a few sound-bites, and constructing from them overly-simplistic ideas that equate the practice of compassion with maintaining social harmony at all costs, and that being empathic means being a doormat who never says "no" to even the most unreasonable demands. He also seems to think that if the Dalai Lama's ideas about compassion had any real-world relevance, Tibet wouldn't be the position that it's in.

On the one hand, this seems like a simple lesson in why it's a bad idea to critique material that you really aren't familiar with. If the Dalai Lama were in fact pushing a message of extreme passivity in the face of injustice as the way to save the world, that really would be a bad thing. But I haven't seen or heard anything to suggest that such is the gist of his teaching - although I missed all of his Seattle appearances, so I can't say that definitively (yes, I know, I know). But the cynic in me detects a hint of Christian chauvinism. Normally, Robinson is more forward with his own religious beliefs - "Articles of Christianity" or even "Articles of Protestantism" would be a more accurate title for his column, as he almost never mentions other faiths by name, let alone talk about how they relate to the world today.

But I'm curious as to what Robinson would say about Christ's injunctions to treat others as we would like to be treated, and to turn the other cheek when struck. These seems to be a much more blatant call to passivity than the Dalai Lama's stand.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Fly the Scaredy Skies

While [the FAA's former director of flight standards, Nick] Lacey says there was no immediate danger, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Eyeshum Cory says any noncompliance — no matter how small — is a safety issue, and the alternative is unthinkable.

"You may be inconvenienced for a few hours, you may be inconvenienced for a day. But you'll have that day. And you'll have another day," Cory says.
Airlines Scramble as Grounded Planes Cause Chaos - NPR

American Airlines has canceled thousands of flights to check the spacing of fasteners securing sleeves on bundles of wires in the wheelwells of MD-80 airliners. Cory's statement is a scare tactic, pure and simple, and relies on two basic premises, both of which are likely false:

1. Improper fastening of the bundles in the sleeves creates a significant likelihood of a fatal airplane crash.
2. Inspecting for proper fastening of the bundles in the sleeves eliminates the likelihood of a fatal airplane crash.
The job of the FAA isn't to be apologists for the airline industry. And I think that they really have no business attempting to frighten people into thinking that a massive disruption of the domestic travel industry is the only thing that stands between the flying public and a fiery death in an airplane disaster. I find it difficult to fathom that there wasn't a less disruptive means of accomplishing the same ends. But if nothing else, this is pretty much impossible to miss, and so the FAA and American are certainly seen to be doing something - even though it's something that they should have been doing behind the scenes for years.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Temporary Fury

Okay. So it's being shown that thousands of people are willing to line the streets, and attempt to extinguish the Olympic Torch as a way of making their displeasure with China known. And this is becoming somewhat of an embarrassment to China. These things are all fine and good, I suppose. But when it's all said and done, and the Olympics are over, and the Chinese no longer feel the need to burnish their international image - where will these people be then? Will the events of Tibet fade into Ancient History (even in the face of a retaliatory crackdown), like the World Trade Organization or the Genocide in Darfur?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Ghost of Mount Rainier

Unless there's been a good rain a day or two before, the Puget Sound area tends to be somewhat hazy. This has the interesting effect of making it difficult (for me, anyway - especially given the distance involved) to photograph Mount Rainier. You can see the mountain through your viewfinder, but 4 times out of 5, the haze washes out the mountain in the actual photograph. I presume that I as I actually learn how to properly use my camera, I'll be able to get around this problem. And I have a couple of ideas in mind already. But until then, I'm going to find myself dealing with an effect that I've come to think of as "The Ghost of Mount Rainier." Not only because despite the fact that you can see the mountain, it's hard to photograph, but the haze makes the mountain itself look more phantasmal than real.

The Needle in Dusk Clouds

The Space Needle, in Seattle, is not only an excellent platform for photography, but it also makes an excellent subject. (Unfortunately, I am not an excellent photographer.)

I don't know why I like this particular picture of it so much. I have the nagging feeling that it could have been a much better snapshot, somehow. But it's cool, so it seems worthwhile to share it.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


"We should all be familiar with the depressing fallout by now. Forty percent of the 2.2 million people in prison or jail are black, 20 percent are Latino. At the current rate, one in three black men will spend time behind bars before they die.

Those are stunning facts, but equally gripping are the ones that make clear how the prison-industrial complex has ballooned with black bodies as a result of Washington's quixotic war on drugs. Since its opening salvos in the early 1980s, the national prison population has grown at a faster rate than ever, according to Justice Department stats—by nearly 700 percent. Take that in for a second, it's a doozy. Now consider this one as well: In 1980, just 25 percent of federal prisoners were locked up for drug charges; today, the number is larger by half than the entire prison population of 1980.

Over the last two decades, conservative thinkers have peddled pseudoscience and played upon white fantasies about urban America to rig the system and produce precisely these results."
"5 Things You Should Know About Crack" Kai Wright | TheRoot.com
I've quoted a pretty big chunk of text here, mainly so that I didn't do too much damage to the context.

There's an idea that I want to call attention to here. Many black Americans are upset about the current prison system, convinced that Federal drug policy is deliberately aimed at locking up as many minorities as can be caught and charged. It's a mantra that's repeated again and again, to the point that it's taken as truth, pretty much without question. And it's the kind of thing that, if true, thinking people should be mad about.

But, as it turns out, there are some things left unsaid to help fuel anger at the system. Consider - according to Wright's analysis, the prison population is seven times what it had been in 1980. I'm going to monkey with his numbers a bit, to make the math easier, but if I do the math properly, the overall point should stand. Let's say that the numbers are a bit inflated, and that there are actually exactly 2.1 million people in prison now. If that number is 700% of what the numbers were in 1980, then there were 300,000 people in the federal pen back in 1980. 25% of that 300,000, the number of people that Wright says were locked up on drug charges in 1980, would be 75,000 people. If the number of people currently in prison on drug charges is 150% of the total 1980 prison population, then there are now 450,000 people in the slammer for drugs. But that's only 21.4% of the 2,100,000 that are currently incarcerated. So the number of people in prison on drug charges, while pretty high, has actually declined as a percentage of the total Federal prison population.

But that's not anything worth being angry about, so the numbers are presented in such a way that they do a little cloaking of the truth. And not very well, I might add. After all, I'm not what you would consider to be a wizard at math, and I figured it out.

In a way, it represents progress. Now, it seems, everyone is educated enough to understand how to meddle with statistics.