Sunday, August 31, 2008


Photoshop: Memories - the way we want them

While we all understand that photographs aren't always what they purport to be, one wonders what the future of photography will be, once we get to a point where nearly flawless alterations are widespread enough where it's difficult to say that any given photograph actually chronicles a real event. People have already taken to discounting photographs that challenge their beliefs, citing the ease of forgery as a reason.

I suspect we'll get to the point where you'll see T-shirts saying: "Reality is for people who haven't mastered Photoshop."

Friday, August 29, 2008

Bigger is Better

Okay, so let me get this straight. A meat packer, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, wants to test all of their animals for Mad Cow Disease. Large meat packers oppose such testing, because they a) don't want to suffer the expense of doing such testing themselves, and b) don't want Creekstone Farms to be able to advertise that they do, presumably because they fear that people would be more likely to buy tested beef, thus giving Creekstone a competitive advantage, even with the presumably higher price.

Enter the United States Department of Agriculture, which currently tests about 1 in every 100 animals for the disease, and has taken some flack because they've managed to miss some fairly obvious cases of "downer" cows being sent to slaughter. The Department's position is that they may dictate the number of cows tested, under their power to regulate disease treatment in the food supply - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed, stating, in effect, that testing a DEAD animal for a disease for which there is NO cure can be considered part of "treatment."

It doesn't take much for the appearance of impropriety to be visible. Large meat packers don't want smaller operations to have a competitive advantage in being able to advertise that they've tested and certified that every single animal they sell is free of Mad Cow. That's fine - it's what you would expect out of business. But the USDA has NO business taking sides here - especially when there are still foreign markets leery of accepting US beef imports, for fear of the disease. The Bush Administration is showing a distinct bias towards large businesses over smaller ones, now even to the point of preventing smaller operations from capitalizing on their smaller size to increase their profitability. Especially when a case can be made that it is being done at the direct expense of the public being able to make more informed decisions concerning their health. It's likely true that if universal testing for Mad Cow became the norm, the higher prices would drive down beef consumption. But that's a choice for the market to make on its own, not for the USDA to prevent through bad-faith regulations.

This is unacceptable.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Says Who?

"Hezbollah's presence in Venezuela draws concern"
Only... there is nothing in the article (which seems to be a much shorter variation of one that appears in the LA Times) that actually points to any Hezbollah boots on the ground in Venezuela. The fact that the Chavez government has adopted an "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" stance towards Iran, does not, in and of itself, establish that Venezuela is willing to allow "The Party of God" to set up shop there.

"Agents of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah have allegedly set up a special force to attempt to kidnap Jewish businesspeople in Latin America and spirit them to Lebanon, according to the Western anti-terrorism official." Wow - if this doesn't get the anonymouse award of the century, I don't know what does. We lack not only a name, agency and position, but even the country of origin or any real reason why the source needs to remain anonymous. Come now, I could make the case that some flunky who figures out what to do with the checks from DHS in Wyoming counts as "a Western anti-terrorism official." And we also don't know who's making the referenced allegations - the anonymous source could have pulled them out of his ass, for all that we really know. You couldn't get information this poorly sourced onto Wikipedia - they'd flag you for using "weasel words" in a heartbeat. (Although I admit to finding the parallel to Israel's kidnapping of wanted members of the Third Reich, and smuggling them to Israel to be an interesting one.)

Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review, in one of Jack Shafer's Press Box articles, says that journalists should not allow "interested parties to blowdart enemies from the blinds in news pages" through anonymous sourcing. That seems to be exactly what is happening here. Someone's drumming up fear around Venezuela by insinuating that their relationship with Iran is an open door for Hezbollah to walk through and start terror attacks - essentially claiming that Hugo Chavez' government is on the path to being a State Sponsor of Terrorism. All without a shred of real evidence. As Shafer later points out "If a source has an interest in the way a story is written, he'll do his best to play the reporter. This is true whether the source is on the record or cited anonymously. And the more anonymity he's given, the greater his opportunity to play the reporter and hence the reader."

Shafer has created a web form to report over-reliance on anonymous sources, so I called this out to him. I suspect a lot of people flagged this particular article, so we'll see if he says anything about it in his next Press Box column about Anonymice. I hope he does. Because someone's really trying to play us here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Cause

The "Disgruntled Hillary Clinton Supporter" is back in the news, this time in the context that Senator Clinton is having difficulty getting her die-hard supporters to throw their support behind Senator Obama's campaign. There is an interesting point that seems to be missing from this revived coverage: Many of these people appear NOT to actually be supporters of Senator Clinton - they are supporters of a CAUSE, for which Senator Clinton was not the leader, but a figurehead. Hence, the idea that die-hard Clintonistas "don't find [Senator Clinton] as persuasive as they once did because they think she's supporting Obama only to keep her political future alive." In other words, Senator Clinton was useful to this segment of her "supporters" only as long as she was on board with the Cause. Now, that she has seemingly abandoned it, in the name of political pragmatism, she has become merely a high-visibility apostate.

This, more than anything else, seems to be at the root of the problem. I suspect that there is a segment like this in the die-hard core constituency of any popular politician. There are likely some Mitt Romney "supporters" that have decided that Senator McCain isn't their man, either, and regard Romney as somehow treacherous for suggesting that he should be. The unique aspect of the Hillary Clinton campaign is the remarkable percentage of her overall voter base who support what they decided she stood for, rather than the candidate herself, or the party that she belongs to, and are now willing to ignore both in the name of being true to the Cause.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Games Are For Guys

For those of us that may have forgotten, MSNBC kindly reminds us that video games aimed at a target demographic of teenage boys are remarkably sexist, and pretty much universally depict women as skimpily clad sex objects to be ogled. Because, maybe, you might pick up a game like Rumble Roses XX thinking that it's going to be a tasteful and well thought-out study of women's professional wrestling.

Sarcasm aside, the article does have one flaw - all of the games portrayed are Japanese. And, as anyone who has ever read Play Magazine can tell you, the Land of the Rising Sun has nothing close to a monopoly on digital sexism.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Good Question...

"Who are these women who have not been informed that childbirth is painful?"

Times Online, Alpha Mummy Weblog

Friday, August 15, 2008

Parent Versus Parent

"The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right."
Over on Slate, Linda Hirshman penned an article on how the Democrats new platform on abortion, above. In it, she takes the Democrats to task over their earlier platform, which was something of a compromise position, stating a desire for abortion to be safe and legal, but also rare. Her basic premise is that the right to abortion should be more or less absolute, regardless of the reason - abortion as the last chance for birth control.

"Women," Hirshman says, after dissecting the numbers around popular support for abortion, "whose economic prospects plummet with the birth of a child, now face 65 percent majorities who would support criminalizing their decision to abort because they are too poor for parenthood."

But what does it mean to be "too poor for parenthood?" A quick nip over to the dictionary comes up with a few understandings of the word "parent," among them: "a: one that begets or brings forth offspring, b: a person who brings up and cares for another." "Women bear the overwhelming majority of child-rearing responsibility in this society," Hirshman tells us, evidently worried that we might forget this basic fact. But that only deals with the b: definition of being a parent. And nothing says that the woman who rears a child must be the same woman who bore it. And this is the basic, glaring omission in Hirshman's argument. Her logic is based on combining the two basic understandings of what it means to be a parent into a single, indivisible act. Were she correct in this, she'd have a very good point, as far as I'm concerned. It does seem somewhat drastic to sentence a mother to possibly a lifetime of caring for a child - especially in a society that tends to be stingy when it comes to helping out others - from an unintended pregnancy. But there is no such requirement that the mother single-handedly raise the child. Leaving aside for the moment the idea of the father as a resource, for all of the rhetoric, a mother can, for all intents and purposes, chose to walk away from a baby. (Although, given modern trends, the child is likely to come looking for her later.) The right-to-life movement does not, for the most part, also subscribe to a platform that children have a right to be raised by the same people that bore them, at least not publicly. (Not that I doubt for a moment that such types exist.) Thus, we are left to ask if the cost of only bearing a child in modern-day America is so high that it can derail women's "ability to develop their capacities through education, to use them to achieve economic independence and political citizenship, to take on only the relationships they can manage." I suspect that it can, but I would also suspect that such cases are much rarer than those in which approximately 18 years of child rearing would prove burdensome.

Hirshman seems aggrieved by the fact that although 80% of people surveyed "firmly support abortion in cases in which there is rape, incest, or a threat to the mother's life or health," only a quarter of those support using abortion as a means of birth control; and she sees the earlier Democratic platform that seemed to try to appeal to that broader demographic as a betrayal of those women who would chose abortion for economic or social reasons. Her equation of a the former platform of Safe, Legal, and Rare, with "regret, depression, and self-denigration," seems to also equate valuing women's lives with a definition of autonomy that seems to border on a freedom to be whimsical. But her complete neglect of options other than abortion seems to imply that such autonomy ends at the moment of delivery, which leaves us where such discussions usually founder: If the point at which responsibility trumps autonomy is arbitrary, why is one line any more appropriate than another?

Media Matters

Here's a question - A teenager robs and kills a man because he wants to see how the real-life experience compares to a video game. Assuming that there is any point to placing blame, where does the fault lie?

According to officials in Thailand, the game is the bad influence, and should be pulled from the shelves. But does that make any sense?

It's a question that pops up a lot. Some time back Children's Television Workshop changed Cookie Monster's signature song from "C Is For Cookie" to "A Cookie Is A Sometime Food." Are we really expecting that children are taking their nutritional clues from a blue velvet Muppet?

Snickers had to pull a commercial in which Mr. T used a candy-bar-firing Gatling gun on a man for speed-walking, rather than running. Critics say that the add encouraged violence against gays. Allison Linn, over at MSNBC faults the "orange underground" Cheetos commercials for inspiring young people "to do mean things to other people." (This despite the fact that the commercials are aimed at adults, and I never saw one aired before 9 pm.) I don't think that I've ever met anyone who bases their understanding of appropriate behavior on snack food commercials.

The idea that the media represents a form of mind control is an old one. And it can do a lot, when it comes to shaping opinions. It's always interesting when you meet someone whose entire understanding of this ethnic group or that location is shaped by television and movies. But, in my experience, these are people who have no other frame of reference. You'd expect most people's understanding of the current situation in Georgia, for instance to be shaped by the media. The south Caucasus region isn't exactly a hot spot for world travel, and even news outlets here in the United States can have trouble placing it on a map.

But is there anyone really sheltered enough that Grand Theft Auto forms the sum total of their understanding of carjacking? Or that Sesame Street is their primary source of information about food? I'll be the first person to complain that, given the amount of rampant idiocy that one finds, it's somewhat doubtful that intelligent life on Earth is as common as it supposed, but even I don't go that far.

There is a part of me that suspects the blame game is at work. Thai officials would rather blame Western influence for a teenager's actions than chalk it up to stupidity or incomplete socialization. Gay rights activists find it easier to blame Mars, Incorporated for negative views of gays, rather than call out the public itself for supporting negative views of homosexuals. And the public wins, too - people who are afraid that their children might set themselves on fire to imitate the Human Torch can simply blame Marvel, rather than try to understand how children separate fanstasy and reality.

So we perpetuate a self-serving fantasy ourselves, one that says that we're helpless in the face of media giants that can literally tell us what to think, whether we like it, or not.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

This Time, It's Personal

The debate over abortion in the United States is no big deal for me. I don't have a religious prohibition against it to live up to, and not being a woman, I'm immune from being pregnant. So it's a fight that I don't really have a dog in. Which is good, because I've always felt that the single biggest obstacles to any lasting resolution to the issue are twofold.

The first is that the opposing sides have staked out, generally speaking, mutually exclusive positions. Either abortion on demand is legal, or it isn't. You could make the point that allowing for abortion in life-threatening situations is a compromise, but the really ardent activists on both sides would still find fault with it. The radical pro-choice activists would see it as too restrictive - it wouldn't account for hardship or lesser health concerns than death, and the radical pro-life activists would see it as too liberal - there is a pro-life stand that expects the mother to give her life for the child, if that what it comes down to.

The second, and the one that is relevant here, is that it often becomes personal. Those on one side or the other see the rejection of their arguments, eventually, as an attempt to delegitimize them as people, and they often strike back with arguments designed to delegitimize their opponents as people. Even people who are otherwise thoughtful and tolerant, fall into this trap, as recently happened to John McGuinness. It's pretty easy to see that he feels personally slapped by the Democratic Party's proposed platform on legalized abortion, and retaliates making the uncharitable accusation that Democrats favor abortion rights because it results in fewer people enrolling in expensive social programs. Ouch.

But for all that, I understand the thoughts involved.

I was standing on the El platform at Howard Street one day, many, many years ago, when I encountered a young lady with a button that read "Abortion Free and Legal Now!"

"Free?" I asked?

"Yes," she replied. If I recall correctly, her rationale was that it did little good to have a right to something that one couldn't afford.

"What about other medical procedures?" I asked. "Like removing kidney stones? Should those be free?"

It was a trap, and the poor woman walked right into it, saying something along lines of "I don't think so."

I pounced. "So people should be allowed to die in excruciating pain, while elective abortions are free?" Of course, what I was really saying (if only to myself) was: "So I should have to come up with the money to pay for treatment of a very painful and potentially fatal condition that landed on me out of the blue, while paying taxes to provide money for tramps like you to be carelessly sexually active?!"

While she couldn't read the subtext of my comments, she quickly realized that she'd stepped on a land mine, and turned away, while I sneered at her in self-satisfaction. But it wasn't ten minutes before I repented what I had done as grossly unfair. Her point wasn't that abortion was more important than life-saving surgery, and I knew it. Her point was that abortion should be readily available to people who weren't ready or able to be parents, regardless of their financial circumstances. But rather than engage with her on the appropriateness of public funding for what I felt was normally an elective procedure, I'd taken it as a personal affront. So I'd ambushed her, given her an opening to delegitimize me, and then slammed her when she took the bait, calling her out as thoughtless, and thus delegitimizing her in turn.

We were both in our early twenties - she'd likely given no more thought to the broader implications of her position than I did about things that I thought should be public policy. And she likely knew nothing about kidney stones. I'd first read about them in high school, in a medical encyclopedia that my parents owned, but even with that, I was completely unprepared for the experience of actually having them in my sophomore year of college. She'd likely never heard of the condition - may parents hadn't, the first time it happened to me.

But I chose to see her button, with its simple position statement, as personal, and responded in kind. And, likely, given or reinforced a negative impression of abortion opponents (the really ironic part, since I didn't and still don't, have a principled objection to the procedure). I wondered, for a while, if I'd done nothing more than add to the heat, rather than the light, of the issue.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Money Money Money Money... Money

I was watching the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS when a story came on about HIV/AIDS in the District of Columbia's Black community. Predictably, one of the activists interviewed called for "a massive increase in federal government spending on AIDS in the black community."

Which leads me to wonder: If we were to "fully fund" only the top quarter, say, of initiatives that activists say should be receiving massive amounts of federal funds, how much money would that be in a year? Is that something that could even be managed? Activists tend to call for spending without thinking about all of the other causes (and politics) that are competing for those same dollars, firm in their belief that their crusade should be everyone's highest priority.

But somehow I doubt that we can really spend our way out of all the issues that people have identified.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Whoo Can It Be Now?

Okay, so it's not the best nature shot you've ever seen. This is why the real nature photographers shell out top dollar for the really buff lenses. But I don't have $4,600.00 to spend so I wind up making do with the cheap gear. But anyway, this is the first owl that I've ever seen in the wild. He was just hanging out in a tree while all around, robins were going stark raving bonkers. (But they didn't seem to be mobbing the owl. Occasionally, a robin would fly past, and the owl would pursue for a few yards, but for the most part they simply sat in nearby trees and made a racket.) It may be a Barred Owl, but its vocalization wasn't a "hoot," so I'm not sure.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Cat Bomber

Maybe I spoke too soon...

In Mark Tatulli's comic strip Liō, the title character owns a rather dangerous cat named Cybil. Dangerous because she (I think it's a she), has a short temper and remarkable skill with a shotgun, among other things. In various strips, Liō has needed to intervene to prevent Cybil from taking down a neighbor's dog with a high-powered rifle, and from using a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on a pair of neighborhood children that dared to laugh at the "Beware of the Cat" sign.

In today's strip, Cybil makes it clear that she wants to be fed - by standing on Liō in a suicide vest, one paw holding the deadman's switch. I'm curious if any letters to the editor, expressing outrage, are printed. I'm sure at least some will be written. But with any luck, people will let it pass.