Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Hate Parade

Westboro Baptist is at it again, planning to protest at Heath Ledger's funeral because he played a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain. If the name doesn't ring a bell, this is the same bunch of yahoos who go around protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, claiming that their deaths are part of God's Wrath being vented against America for it's acceptance of homosexuality. (So you mean that if we just all went around beating up gays, we could start wars without any consequences? And to think all this time we were doing things the hard way...) I knew a minister once who bemoaned the fact that Americans had interpreted religion to mean that all they needed to do to earn eternal salvation was to be prudes. But people always looked for the easy road, he said.

The Pack Police

"There will be many cities that will follow, I'm certain of that," said Julia Robinson Shimizu, spokeswoman for Breathe California of Los Angeles County. "It may be the next step to ban smoking in private homes and single-family houses, because smoking doesn't just affect the smoker."
"Calabasas council bans smoking in apartments"

Big Brother is at it again. I don't smoke, and I don't plan to start. But I think that this is getting out of hand. While people have made the argument that it's a slippery slope, I don't really buy into that. There is a large anti-smoking advocacy in this country that really doesn't exist for some other possible "second-hand" dangers, like painting, for instance. (Some modeling paint is really nasty to use indoors, and if you're painting on your porch, other people in the vicinity will be exposed to the fumes.) The issue here is going to be enforcement. Banning smoking in private, unattached homes simply for it's own sake won't fly - you'd likely have to make tobacco illegal, and I can bet how well THAT would work. There are going to have to be other people in the home for any ban like this to be enforcible. But that's going to be hard - is it illegal for you to smoke in your home if I show up unannounced? What if I don't care that I'm being exposed to second-hand smoke?

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like this is starting to take on a hysterical tone - something like peanut allergies. And the problem with hysteria is that sooner or later, the pendulum is going to swing back the other way.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Effortless Belief

A friend of mine is a believer that the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001 were perpetrated by the United States government. While members of the "9/11 Truth Movement" in general tend to worry me with their anger/contempt towards unbelievers, this friend of mine is a smart, funny and genuinely nice guy, whose real concern is that the government of the United States has become subverted by a group of power-hungry crazies who think nothing of the indescriminate slaughter of thousands of people in the pursuit of securing their own control over things.

I, for my part, don't believe that the evidence is really there. But then again, I haven't made the effort to really pick apart the clues that people point to. I've watched a couple of documentaries, and checked out people's videos and done a limited amount of reading. I suspect, however, that the experts on both sides of the issue could keep me very busy looking at the facts for a very long time. And I have to go to work in the morning, on top of it.

I'm going to admit that I started from a position that the official line, while not 100% accurate (since complete honesty would require the rolling of heads in high places, and be an admission of weakness) is, ahem, close enough for government work. And I'm going to also admit that I do have some resistance to believing the whole "September 11th was an inside job," line. I, and I suspect that I'm not alone in this, have an aversion to being murdered. So it makes little sense to live in a nation where the government is controlled by people who would casually use mass murder as a political tool. Therefore, as soon as I accept that September 11th was the work of the United States Government, I have a fair amount of work on my hands. Moving to a different country is no small task. Outside of the logistical challenges of packing up my entire life and moving it somewhere else, determining just where that somewhere else should be isn't going to be easy. After all, it would do me little good to flee a murderous cabal in the United States, only to wind up someplace with its own bunch of killer bureaucrats.

This is not to say that I've joined the ranks of the pseudo-skeptics - people whose alleged "skepticism" actually cloaks a steadfast refusal to believe anything that might shake their worldview - because I'm afraid of a little work. After all, I've wanted to live abroad for some time now, and am likely going to take a shot at it, as soon as a reasonable opportunity presents itself. But I'd like to proceed at a more leisurely pace than someone fleeing for their life. But in the meantime, deciding that I'm not being placed in an unacceptable position by my own government lowers my workload.

I bring all of this up, because it's something that I've started to notice in the world around me - that sometimes, you can point to people who claim to believe things that seem more than a little suspect, and it turns out that they've taken the path of least work, if not necessarily the path of least resistance. It has been speculated that Mitt Romney was given a boost in the polls in Michigan because John McCain came out and told people that many auto industry jobs were gone for good, and people were going to have to get used to the idea of job retraining and career changes. Despite the fact that smart money says that McCain is right on the mark, people credit Romney's pledge to somehow revive the Detroit auto industry with winning him the state. McCain - "you're going to have to buckle down and train for a new career" - versus Romney - "the Federal government will bring your old jobs back to you, with no effort on your part outside of voting for me." Some people have cast Romney's message as more hopeful (as things utterly disconnected from harsh realities can usually be), but I also think that the fact that it calls for little to no sacrifice on the part of voters had something to do with it.

Bob Sullivan touched on a similar point when stumping for his new book ("Gotcha Capitalism") on NPR. When Intercontinental Hotels offered Up-Front pricing, with no hidden fees, the public went with those hotels that advertised lower prices - and then gouged them by tacking a host of little fees and charges, despite the fact that Intercontinental was responding to public discontent over the constant hidden fees. But faced with a choice of researching a price that seemed too good to be true, or taking it and crossing their fingers, people chose to take the bait and switch, even though they surely suspected it was just that. It's the same everywhere. Businesses jack up the fees and hidden costs because they understand that it's more profitable - since even when they're caught lying about their prices, people are seldom willing to do the work (or take the hit) to make a change.

This isn't to say that all alleged conviction hides a core of laziness - or that people are being intentionally work-adverse. But our national tendency to seek the "solutions" that offer the least work, even if they're going to have a larger cost later on, is going to come back and bite us eventually. Consider the economic package that Congress and the President are working on. The tens of billions of dollars that they're talking about spending have to come from somewhere. And that somewhere is likely going to be foreign banks. One day those dollars are going to have to go back - with interest. No problem, says the White House. There's no need to tolerate lower levels of service or higher taxes - some future spectacular economic growth with automagically generate enough of a surplus for a long enough time to get us out of debt. No work required.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Futility Watch

Okay. This really IS ironic. Mexican lawmakers were in Arizona, complaining that Arizona's new employer sanctions law will have a devastating effect on the Mexican state of Sonora, because of a lack of resources to provide services to the Mexican citizens who will return there after being unable to find work in the Arizona.

"Mexico is not prepared for this, for the tremendous problems" it will face as more and more Mexicans working in Arizona and sending money to their families return to hometowns in Sonora without jobs, [Representative Leticia Amparano Gamez (National Action Party - Nogales)] said.
I don't know if I think of this as just odd, or downright bizarre. I understand that Mexico has an interest in people being able to come to the United States to work, and that Mexico's first priority is, well, Mexico. (Amazing, isn't it?) But it seems odd that they would allow themselves to become SO dependent on the United States not enforcing immigration laws effectively, that they are, in effect, prompted to come to the United States to plead that potentially effective measures be scuttled. Although part of me suspects that this is actually playing to the home crowd - an opportunity to say to the folks back home: "Hey, it's not OUR fault. Blame the Americans." Politics is, after all, politics.

Taking Sides

So Michigan had their primaries a couple days ago. There seems to be a bit of confusion over whether or not the plural is called for in this case - the Democratic National Committee decided that Michigan won't have any delegates at this year's nominating convention, because they wouldn't play by the rules. Both parties have rules that bar any sort of binding primary or caucus before February 5th of an election year. Hence, Super Tuesday. The Democrats make exceptions for Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina, while the Republicans make none. On the other hand, the Democrats have refused to seat any delegates from states that vote or caucus early, while the Republicans only take half away.

I understand the desire of the national parties to keep control of their primary schedules. It makes perfect sense. But the simple fact that half the states in the country have their primary on the very first day that they won't be punished for says volumes about the importance that the early contests have taken. Here in Washington, we've come to expect that out primaries/caucuses (we have both) are going to be largely ignored, coming as they do after Super Tuesday. The candidates appear to have come to that same conclusion - they were out here early, farming Microsoft Millionaires and other factions of the moneyed class for donations, but we haven't seen hide nor hair of them recently. Now, if there isn't a clear winner for one or both parties as of the mega-primary, you could expect that to change, but no-one's holding their breath.

But back the point. The DNC leaned on the candidates to not campaign in states that voted early, and Senators Obama and Edwards didn't even put themselves on the ballots in Michigan, and people weren't even allowed to write their names in. But I want to know why the candidates are taking sides in this. Michigan, like Florida, pushed their primary forward because they felt they didn't have a voice in the process. Iowa and New Hampshire, especially, are fiercely protective of their go-first status because it makes their states both important in the process, and on the receiving end of millions of dollars. (Washington state should call over there, and see what our money has purchased, just out of curiosity.) But someone who's running for President of the United States shouldn't play favorites, especially when they don't have to. It's not like the DNC was going to block someone from being nominated, just because they stumped in Michigan. And Senator Obama, of all of them, should know better. A big part of his platform has been about cutting the pork. Well, what is pork, if not one state attempting to benefit at everyone else's expense? If he's already willing to help certain states hold on to advantages over others, that seems like a bad start.

The Truth Reflex

My sister sent me the story about how you shouldn't use cruise control in the rain because if your car hydroplanes, you'll suddenly go flying out of control and smash into something. It smacked of an urban legend the second I read it, so I replied to her e-mail with why the scenario as laid out didn't make any sense, and, for good measure, I found and included a link to a Snopes.com article, that somewhat debunked the story.

Later, I found myself asking why I'd bothered. The fact that using cruise control in the rain is bad idea is something of a given - you should never use cruise control in any situation where you think you might need fine control over you car's speed. Okay, so my sister had come to that conclusion as the result of reading a possibly fictional account of an accident that someone had sent her in an e-mail. The e-mail that I'd sent back told her the same thing - I agreed with her that one shouldn't use cruise control in the rain - I simply had a different rationale for not doing so. So even if she read my e-mail, and followed the link, all that she was going to learn was that she'd adopted a safe practice for a possibly erroneous reason.

Part of it might be that I dislike a focus on orthopraxy, feeling that it leads people to play fast and loose with the facts. (I think that many people knock activists for this tendency.) There's a part of me that doesn't want to be the type that would rather have people ignorantly doing the right thing, rather than giving them enough information to make an intelligently informed choice.

But I think in this case, it was a simple reflex. I was told something that I didn't think was true, and so I set out to educate someone as to the straight dope. I know that I have a tendency to do that, even in situations that I find to be completely trivial. I'm a bit disappointed with myself - I've tried to suppress the urge to always "correct" people - especially when it doesn't actually matter what they believe. Maybe next time I'll do a better job of catching myself before the fact.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Green or Nothing

I was at an interesting forum a few years ago, where people were asked hypothetical questions, and then there was some time to compare and debate the answers people gave. One question that came around to me was: “What would you do with a $300,000,000.00 lottery jackpot?” I’d been thinking about the manufacturing sector at around that time, and was wondering if it would be possible to create a super high-tech manufacturing facility that would allow for domestic production, without a reliance on blue-collar labor that comes at a premium in the American market. Given 300 million USD, I answered that I’d experiment with the concept by trying to build a car company that would be both completely domestic and financially viable in the long term.

Everyone else who answered the question had their own ideas of what they’d do with that sort of money, except one guy – who decided that he’d spend the entire amount solely to sink my new car company. Turns out he thought that cars were such an environmental disaster that private ownership of motor vehicles should be banned. (Frankly I had been unprepared for the hostility with which this guy reacted to my idea. “Welcome to the Left Coast,” I thought to myself. What else can you say?) Something tells me this same guy is currently having conniptions over this new offering from India’s Tata Motors, billed as the world’s cheapest automobile. (Any bets on how soon you’ll be able to buy one from Wal-Mart, or a three-pack from Costco?)

Part of the problem with environmentalist concern over this car is that it in effect condemns people in the developing world to remain undeveloped until their entire development can be effected with “green” technologies. Which requires that said technologies become fully mature. And while this might (and allow me to stress might) be a laudable goal, what do people in India get out of it? They wait twenty years for ├╝ber-green technology to become perfectly viable, with nothing in it for them in the meantime? Good luck with that. I mean you can talk about long term environmental goals all you want, but why should Indians be any more inclined to think about the Earth their grandchildren will inhabit than Americans are?

If the environmental community wants to head off this sort of thing, then the onus is on them to produce an alternative that is attractive to both them, and the people whom they're trying to talk out of buying affordable cars. Simple hostility to cars (or privately-owned personal transportation in general) isn’t going to solve anyone’s problems. Simply declaring a lifestyle inappropriate because it is deemed unsustainable isn’t feasible.

What are the odds?

Okay... Lemmee see if I have this straight. Some guy walks into a brothel, and, lo and behold, he sees his wife, who's decided to supplement her income by becoming a hooker. Of course, they are now getting a divorce. Is there a version of "The Jerry Springer Show" in Poland? This sounds like the kind of thing that a daytime producer would cook up to spark ratings.

While I understand that given long enough, anything can happen, this whole thing just sounds a little too contrived to be the exact story...

Friday, January 11, 2008

Among the Words

In today's edition of Slate Ray Fisman examines Bill Cosby's opinions concerning conspicuous consumption, at the expense of health and education, in the African-American community. This latest installment of The Dismal Science, "Cos and Effect," is subtitled: "Bill Cosby may be right about African-Americans spending a lot on expensive sneakers - but he's wrong about why." Okay, so far so good. Somewhat buried in the piece is the statement: "The Cosby explanation—that there is simply a culture of consumption among black Americans—doesn't quite cut it for economists." The rest of the article goes on to explain that EVERYBODY who has the resources to play the game, not just African-Americans, is engaged in the pursuit of status through "wealth-signaling" (the $10.00 - but much shorter - term for "conspicuous consumption" used in the article).

Perhaps I tend to be too precise in my use of a language not known for being exact in its meanings (if you think about the origins of the word "terrific" as opposed it its current definition, you'll see what I mean), but I think that Fisman should have said "peculiar to" or "unique to" rather than simply "among." Just because I say that something is found among one group doesn't preclude it from being found among any other group. Yes, you can assume that these meanings were implied, as the text supports such an assumption. But I've never cared for implication when journalism is concerned. Granted, Slate isn't a news site - it's a commentary site, and that carries a significant difference.

Part of it is that the statement, when first encountered is bland enough to easily pass over. For something that an entire article is devoted to refuting, it's not stated particularly forcefully. But the other part of it is that if you DON'T immediately assume that "among black Americans" is meant to also imply, "as opposed to everyone else," the article seems to be one hand clapping. It's working to refute a statement that hasn't been made.

The other issue that the article brings up, and perhaps this is the more important one, is that Fisman never actually quotes Cosby, or provides any context to say that the veteran performer actually thinks that African-Americans are more devoted to a culture of conspicuous consumption than anyone else. We know is that he feels that black Americans make poor choices when they spend their money on expensive sneakers, tricked out rides and ostentatious bling rather than investing it in their children's futures, but that doesn't in itself mean that he thinks of them as being uniquely profligate spenders. The troubles in the housing market do a lot to illustrate that poor choices are poor choices, even when everyone around you is making them. The fact that Cosby is criticizing the African-American community seems to be taken as de-facto evidence that he understands that other communities don't have the same issues, even though it's more or less irrelevant who else might be so afflicted, given that Cobsy is attempting to rouse his own people into more responsible action.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

No Fence Required

Oklahoma's tough new immigration law has gone on the books, and the effects are starting to be felt. This will be interesting. With laws like this actually in place, the actual, rather than hypothetical, effects can be judged, and then people can make more rational decisions about immigration law, and how many people the United States should be allowing in, and under what circumstances. But this does prove one point that people have been making for years – dry up access to jobs, and the migrants go elsewhere. No fence required.

Sounds Good

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer added reader forums to their website some time ago, and for the most part they are a waste of time, bandwidth and disk space. For any conversation that goes longer than a dozen posts, the common fate is that it becomes a politically polarized shouting match between a some bunch of yahoos that drone on and on and on and on and on about how moronic, immoral or hypocritical liberals are (yet seem to have nothing better to do to than read a fairly liberal newspaper in a fairly liberal market and then write screed after pseudo-conservative screed in the reader comment forums) and some bunch of self-proclaimed liberals who seem to have nothing better to do than feed the trolls.

But this particular SoundOff is actually enlightening. One of the posters, thezorg, is a lawyer (Given that its effectively an anonymous forum, and I don't know who thezorg is in real life, he could be lying and just slept at a Holiday Inn last night. But I'm actually fairly certain he's the real deal.), and offers some really good information on the process, and the thinking that goes into it, that's missing from the newspaper article that people were responding to in the first place. He quickly manages to hijack what was quickly turning into dueling ignorant screeds, and turned it into a very informative question-and-answer session.

It is also, in my opinion something that could be made into a model for web-based newspapers. I have no idea how much server space the Post-Intelligencer has devoted to its innumerable staff and reader webblogs. But I suspect that some of those resources could be re-purposed into providing contextual depth that is currently lacking in many stories. thezorg fills in some really big gaps in the background of the story that readers needed to lower the sensationalism value, and make the piece really educational. Written as a single piece of prose, it would make an excellent companion piece to the article (and could even take the place of some of the Associate Press filler on the website). This strikes me as the sort of thing that actually provides value to the newspaper reader, and could even be worth paid subscriptions.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Election Season

One of the nice things about living in Washington State is that the this year's presidential primary is pretty much considered a non-event. Everyone expects that the nominees will be pretty much decided before we get around to our caucuses and primary (yes, Washington has both - it's bizarre). Which means that it's safe to walk up and down the street without random reporters coming up and asking you who you want to vote for. Over and over again. For months. I don't know how people in New Hampshire do it.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Instinct

One item that I had originally overlooked when thinking about Evolution is that fact that Natural Selection operates on behaviors, as well as the physical structures of an organism. (Of course, here the discussion is limited to animals - as plants to not have "behaviors" in the same fashion.) I suspect that this is due partially to the fact that I don't own any pets or working animals - and therefore have lacked the experience of watching an animal exhibit a complex behavior without having had the opportunity to learn that behavior from an older animal.

Like I said, I'm not trying to write a book report, so I'll refrain from a page-by-page retelling of the chapter. But there is some interesting stuff here, if you ever get around to reading it yourself. The basic gist is simple - certain inborn behaviors show grant a population of animals a competitive advantage of some sort, and is therefore retained. As further modifications that amplify the effect appear, they are retained, and the behavior is effectively reinforced. Again, domesticated animals are a useful model here - intentional selection has created a number of working dogs that show very specific behaviors (and, at the same time, lack others).

The trick with demonstrating the action of natural selection on behavior isn't much different that with an organism's physicality, although it is more difficult. The fossil record can show us certain physical traits of an animal - but is commonly mostly (if not completely) silent concerning behavior - witness the back-and-forth over whether or not Tyrannosaurs were predators or scavengers. In The Origin of Species, Darwin, with the help of the naturalist community is able to track down several variations on specific species (like cuckoo birds), and from their differing behaviors, put together a simple narrative on how the instincts may have evolved. It's not often a very complete picture, but it does illustrate how Natural Selection works on instinctive behavior, and broadens the scope of the Theory beyond the simply physical.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Quick Cash

Coburg, Oregon generated about 30% of its general fund budget from from traffic fines and bails in 2006-2007, down from nearly 50% previously. The town had become such a notorious speed trap that state legislation was enacted to deal with the issue. According to Coburg Police Chief John Bosley, the city has a legitimate safety interest in patrolling the freeway. And it's hard to argue that point.

On the other hand, state Senator Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene) says it's poor policy to rely on tickets as a source of revenue because "the city's need to pay salaries," can become the driving factor in the decision to issue citations.

Senator Prozanski makes a good point. Ticketing is often at the discretion of the officer, and it would be preferable to have that call made in the interest of public safety, rather than revenue generation. And this touches on what for me is an important point. When a municipality comes to rely on fines and bails for a significant portion of their overall budget, in effect, they create for themselves an interest in lawbreaking. If everyone decided tomorrow to scrupulously observe the speed limit along Interstate 5, the town of Coburg would find itself in dire financial straits. And this then creates an incentive for the city to oppose measures that would lead to less speeding. (There was a similar case in Florida, some years ago. The highway department was painting lines across the expressway, spaced so that they created the illusion of acceleration. Drivers would then let off the gas, slowing down. Several municipalities sued the state to have the lines removed, as the initiative cut into their ticketing revenue. Similarly, several municipalities have made it illegal to feed other people's parking meters, as this also cuts into citations, and the revenue they generate.) The town's financial interest and its safety interest are at odds with each other. This is not to imply that Coburg is so corrupt or callous a place that they'd prefer carnage on the roadways to being broke - and since a world without speeding is a pipe dream, to some extent, this is a moot point. But in so many other areas, people are sensitive to even the appearance of a conflict of interest, and there certainly is an appearance here.