Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mindless Proclivities

It's been a really rough past two months for police officers here in the Puget Sound area. Six officers have been killed in three separate shootings between Halloween and Christmas of this year. "Out of control" doesn't begin to describe it.

Unsurprisingly, there's been a lot of soul-searching going on as people work to understand whats going on around them. And, as is usually the case, the spotlight very quickly swings around to gun culture in America. This being the Seattle area, and therefore a very Blue part of the state of Washington (and the United States as a whole), public access to firearms is a convenient and recurring villain.

One editorial that I read (and am using this space to re-work my comments on) calls for an assessment of "[...] how the culture became awash in guns and embraced a mindless proclivity to use them."

I think this statement, while powerful, REALLY misses the point. The problem isn't a "mindless proclivity" to use guns in our culture - the problem is a mindless proclivity to use violence as a solution to problems, real or imagined, in our culture.

Tom decides he needs some money - he takes it from someone else; by force if need be.

Jill doesn't do as she's told - so Jack cows her into submission.

Dick doesn't receive the "respect" he "deserves" - he gets what owed him by hurting or killing those that don't toe the line.

Sally desperately wants to start a new life - to free herself for a new lover she murders her partner and/or children.
There is an assumption sometimes, which I don't think that reality bears out, that a proclivity to use violence can be tempered, if perhaps not thwarted, through simply blocking legal access to guns. (We'll leave aside for the time being the difficulties of preventing the illicit trade in weapons.) While no one says so in as many words, there seems to be an understanding that in the absence of easy access to weapons, former armed robbers will turn to gainful employment, and urban gangsters will return to school. It doesn't take a very careful reading of the newspaper to realize that any of the above scenarios can be carried out without resorting to firearms. It's true that guns make it easier, but simply banning firearms is unlikely to halt violence in and of itself.

Part of the problem, as I understand it, is that we've simply accepted as a given that Americans are violent. Not feeling able to do anything about this, we simply resort to damage control. I don't see how this becomes a winning strategy. We should not be ignoring a greater social tendency to resort to violence in favor of a narrow focus on firearms. I'm not an advocate for unfettered access to whatever firearms one might want - you have to register a car, so I don't see the problem with registering guns. But I think that we need to understand that the invention of violence predated the invention of gunpowder, and that while restrictions and bans will make guns may reduce the incidence of violence with guns, it won't likely reduce violence as a whole. And someone who bleeds out from a knife wound, has their skull bashed in with a hammer or is throttled bare-handed is just as dead as anyone else. The fact that they weren't shot to death shouldn't make their demise any less untimely, or its circumstances any more acceptable.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Gotcha! I Think...

The online commentary magazine Slate runs Doonesbury every day as one of their features. On the page, among other things, is a section titled "Say What?" This generally showcases something silly, disagreeable or contradictory that someone has said. The 29th of December features Senator Jim DeMint - a Republican from South Carolina.

"I never wanted to break the president."
-- Sen. Jim DeMint, 12/27/09

"If we're able to stop Obama on this [health care reform], it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."
-- Sen. Jim DeMint, 7/17/09
Gotcha, Senator DeMint! Or... maybe not. It's a pretty damning statement, on the face of things. While it's a safe bet that DeMint does, in fact, want "to break the president" (c'mon, he's a Republican - it's like saying that houseplants want water), it's worth keeping in mind that it for DeMint's August statement to make a liar out of him in December, you have to make an assumption that you can't support simply with the statements given.

DeMint's August statement is simply an understanding of cause and effect - if A, then B. Yes, I know: "But," you're asking, "If DeMint is working to defeat health care reform, which he knows will 'break the president,' doesn't that mean that he wants the president to be broken?" If, and only if, you presume that opposition to health care reform is a means, not an end in itself. If that isn't true, "breaking" President Obama may just as easily be the unwanted consequence of a necessary action. And, of course, if defeating health care reform is an end in itself, then DeMint might simply not care about the consequences. With just the two statement to go on, you can't make that determination. (Personally, I agree with Jacob Weisberg - the Democrats are looking to buy votes with through government expansion, and the Republicans don't see the aided demographic translating into votes for them, and so are out to nix the deal.)

Partisan bickering is becoming the norm in general political discourse these days - that's nothing new. And one of things that goes along with it is an often shocking willingness to believe truly nasty things about the opposition. But I guess I still find it important to convict the guilty, rather than settle for framing them.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Plugging the Leaks

The quick imposition and then relaxation of new security rules after this most recent failed bombing attempt is vexing air travelers.

"Travelers on incoming international flights said that during the final hour, attendants removed blankets, banned opening overhead bins, and told passengers to stay in their seats with their hands in plain sight."
In-flight security rules eased*
(Where the Hell were they flying into? San Quentin?)

The problem isn't the fact that this all comes of as being very reactive, rather than proactive, although I don't know of any successful long-term security operation that's always chasing what the opposition last did. It's that it comes off as mindlessly reactive - simply banning whatever the last guy did, rather than trying to understand the greater hole in the process and working to close it. Making everyone fly with their hands clamped to the armrests seems somewhat less important than finding an intelligent way to make sure that people don't bring bombs onto the planes is the first place.

Security analysts like Richard Clark seem content to work to scare people into accepting more expensive and more intrusive security measures, as if being naked and broke provides absolute security (he made his comments on Good Morning America - the video can't be linked to directly), and I guess I understand that mindset. But it seems to work from the idea that through ever greater intrusiveness and expense, we can maintain a 100% success rate - which, realistically speaking, is manifestly impossible. Granted, that's a hard sell, but I don't think that pretending otherwise is workable forever.

* Note that given the way the Seattle Times updates stories, you might follow this link to a new (but related) story with completely different copy. They get on my nerves with that.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Why is everything "Product" these days? Doesn't anyone make automobiles, action figures or fruitcakes anymore? And why is all information "Content?" It as if there were a movement to purge the English language of specificity.

I understand that many companies make all sorts of different things, and that sometimes, a generic term for stuff is handy. But terms like "product" and "content" seem to be very much removed from the actual things, almost to the point of complete separation.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Who Again?

Although the sudden demise of actress Brittany Murphy touched of a round of salacious gossiping, I have to admit that my reaction was: "Who?" It appears that I am not properly up on my celebrity news, especially as it concerns young, attractive blondes.

Maybe it's just me, but Murphy didn't exactly strike me as an a-list actress, although this could be mainly due to the fact not having seen any of the movies she was in, I couldn't have picked her out of a lineup. The hype surrounding her death seems to be as much driven by the possibility that she died of a drug overdose as anything else, although the rarity of someone her age dropping dead of a heart condition is rare enough that she may have made the news to some degree regardless of her profession.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Helping Hand

Drumming for spare change has become something of a tradition at Seattle's Westlake Center. The man standing, wearing the scarf, is not homeless or looking to score some extra cash from passerby however - he's a Microsoft employee, who stopped to help the drummers with their act by rapping over their beats.

Between the three of them, they were pretty good. Too bad they don't have any singles on I-tunes.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Where's The Remote?

The CALM (or Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) Act is making its way through the House of Representatives. If it, through some massive Congressional brain fart (yes, yes, I know - they happen all the time), becomes law, it would make it illegal to run commercials at a significantly higher volume than the show during which they run.

Okay. I understand the idea. I find 120 decibel commercials for ProActive to be annoying, too. But this is what they invented the "Mute" button for. Between that, and deciding that anyone who needs to shout doesn't have a product worth buying, I'm pretty sure that we could nip this in the bud without passing yet another law.

Besides, it's not like we're going to see any advertising executives doing a perp walk to a federal courthouse over this (which, I must admit, would make it all worthwhile).


You have ten legislators in a room; four Republicans and six Democrats. How many political agendas are represented?

At least seven. While the Republicans will have one between them, the Democrats are lucky if they only have one each.
Of course, the Republicans have managed this feat by being remarkably disciplined. But there's another part of it - the rightmost-leaning members of the party have cultivated (or, depending on who you ask, have had foisted upon them) a constituency that not only supports and expects a rigid political orthodoxy (and orthopraxy) but demands it - as evidenced most recently by the case of California Assembly member Anthony Adams. Assemblyman Adams' sin: "an aye vote for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2009-2010 state budget, which included about $12.5 billion in tax increases [...]." This bit of political pragmatism promptly detonated in his face.
Adams received anonymous death threats, prompting the state Highway Patrol to provide him and his wife with around-the-clock protection for three days.
Now, given the penchant for members of the public to toss of death threats like confetti (especially when the speed and anonymity of the internet means that it's easy to do on an impulse, and unlikely to result in jail time), the overall short amount of time that his family had police protection seems warranted - but still - death threats?

"Conservatives" (I have a hard time thinking of people who hide behind anonymity to threaten people as being Conservative in any positive sense of the word) who are upset at Adams have trotted out an old epithet to describe him: Betrayer. When he'd run for office in 2006, one of the things that had impressed conservative voters was his willingness to sign a pledge to oppose any tax increases. But like other politicians who made publicly pledging opposition to taxes a central part of their platforms (President George H. W. Bush and Washington Governor Christine Gregiore come to mind) Adams was making a blind bet on the future - and in the end, he lost. Going on the record as refusing to raise taxes in the future is to publicly declare that at no point during one's political tenure will a new tax be needed. You may as well command the ocean to stay off the beaches.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Another Fifty Pictures

Well, now that 2009 is drawing to a close, I went through the photographs that I took this year, and created another gallery of 50 of them and set up here on NIP. This is a more difficult operation than it has any right being, as you have to remove the previous slideshow completely, and wait a few minutes, and then re-add it for a new gallery to appear on the drop down list.

Anyway, if (very) amateur photography is your thing, enjoy!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Would You Like Freedom Fries With That?

While I was poking around on LinkedIn, I found a "news story" that breathlessly reported "a surge in Federal employees making over $150,000 a year in the height of a depression with bankruptcies, foreclosure and unemployment soaring." A little more reading revealed a completely unsourced article from a foreign firm that specializes in "Asset protection," "Offshore corporations" and "Offshore banking." It didn't take long to realize that this woeful tale of the federal government is ignoring the plight of its citizens, and cynically attempting to enrich its employees at public expense wasn't news - rather it was a thinly veiled advertisement for their services, complete with a built-in pseudo-populist justification.

But it got me wondering - where DID the information come from? These days, pretty much anything that can be understood as "fact" can be pretty easily checked out with a quick Google search - you can bet that someone's posted something about it somewhere, although you might have to do some digging, send some e-mails or cough up some cash to get at what you're looking for. And if it's not online, you should at least be able to find out where you need to go to get at it. An online search revealed a number of conservative blog postings, mainly ranting about the data without bothering to say from whence it came. The closest I could find to someone who actually appeared to have done some homework was this article by Chris Edwards at the Cato Institute. And even though he was trying to stoke the fires of anti-government anger (at least he wasn't blaming the current administration for things), he could actually point to factual data, released by the government, to back up what he was saying. It would have been nice if he'd been more free with linking to exact locations where he'd found data, but he was free enough so that you could look for yourself, and make a judgment as to whether or not government workers are overpaid that didn't require a reliance on hearsay and supposition.

But I did feel (and Edwards points out that others have made the same point, and he somewhat agrees) that it's something of an apples to pears comparison. While it's true that General Federal Government Civilian employees made an average of $79,197, compared to a private sector average of $50,028, it's worth noting that the private sector includes farm workers, general merchandise store employees and accommodation and food services workers along with the oil and gas extraction people and securities, commodity contracts, and investments workers. Since it's doubtful that the federal government has very many minimum-wage jobs, government workers are likely somewhat élite when compared to the entirety of the private workforce in America. While Edwards might very well be correct in his assertion that they're unlikely élite enough to justify being paid more than the average, it's a safe bet that when your average McJob is part of that average, government work looks better by comparison.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


The latest threat to public safety may or not be the Zhu Zhu pet, which is allegedly a cute mechanical hamster. Not long ago, a web site called the Good Guide posted that the toys contain a high level of antimony. You've likely heard about this, mainly because it seems that every news outlet between here and Jupiter has picked up the story, including NPR.

I heard NPR's story on the radio, and it's an interesting enough piece, but it has one curious omission: it doesn't name names. While we're told that the toys were tested by an outside lab, we're never told the name of the company. It's simply a "independent certified testing lab, which is highly regarded." That's all fine and good, but how can one evaluate the statement, without knowing the name of the laboratory? (Were you to place such a statement into a Wikipedia entry, you'd likely have it flagged for "weasel words.") Of course, the name might not mean anything to most, if not all, of the listening audience, so you could say that it makes sense to leave it out. Perhaps more puzzling is the fact that the name of the company that makes the Zhu Zhu pets is never given during the piece - all of the references are indirect, like "the company that makes the Zhu Zhu," the "Zhu Zhu toymakers" or "the Zhu Zhu people." The apparent allergy to the name "Cepia LLC," is beyond me, especially in a piece that seems specifically geared to exonerate the company.

Perhaps I'm the only person that this stood out for, so I won't spend any more time on it. But it does seem strange that a news organization would seem so invested avoiding the company's name in this particular story - they'd had no trouble mentioning it in an earlier piece on the toys by the same reporter.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It Wasn't Us

It been an interesting couple of weeks here in the Puget Sound area, if you follow murder cases. On the one hand, the murder of four Lakewood, Washington police officers by "Arkansas parolee" Maurice Clemmons is still making front page news. On the other hand, the conviction of West Seattle native Amanda Knox in an Italian court for a part in the murder of her British roommate still vies with it for the public's attention.

Locals are upset about both cases, for reasons that are as different as the cases themselves. In the Clemmons case, there seems to be something of a consensus forming that It's All Arkansas' Fault, along with Mike Huckabee. (While Clemmons might turn out to be Huckabee's Willie Horton, I suspect that the local opinion that it nails shut the coffin on his political career is likely premature.) Although it's more or less a truism that if Clemmons were still sitting in an Arkansas prison, he wouldn't have been in a position to shoot four police officers, the sudden expectation of precognition on the part of authorities there seems unrealistic. This hasn't stopped the Governor from saying that no more paroled convicts from Arkansas will be allowed into the state until a full investigation has been completed. (Preferably, it seems, one that places all the blame in Arkansas.)

On the other side of the coin, there's also a constant whisper of It's All Italy's Fault that Amanda Knox was convicted. Senator Maria Cantwell has said that she plans to go to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to share concerns over "whether 'anti-Americanism' tainted the trial." This despite the fact that Knox may have sunk her own ship by not having a consistent story about where she was that night (she claimed that she was in the home and heard her roommate dying - but later claimed she was elsewhere), and by pointing the finger at someone who was later exonerated. But people here still talk about corruption in the Italian legal system, and voice doubts Knox was given a fair trial.

Much of this is to be expected - Clemmons was a black male from elsewhere, while Knox is an attractive, white, female local. That alone could easily explain the differences in people's reactions. But there's another side of things, that doesn't drive as much press: people in the Seattle area seem to like blaming the world's ills on people from elsewhere - as then-Mayor Paul Schell blamed the riots that made 1999's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle into a complete fiasco on out-of-town anarchists. There seems to be a desire on the part of certain people in the Puget Sound area to believe they live in an Earthly Paradise - or at least they WOULD, if it weren't for all of the transplants who flooded the place, bringing crime, traffic, the housing bubble and bad coffee. (One wonders what the Native American population would say about this.) Normally, this manifests itself as what's sometimes termed "the Seattle Chill" (the tendency of Seattlites to be polite, while managing to be distinctly unwelcoming to newcomers). Every so often, this manifests itself as a minor hostility to pretty much the entire rest of the planet. Luckily for us, the rest of the planet rarely notices.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Beggars and Choosers

A Giving Tree went up at work today, with two different colored tags on it. One color signified requests from children; the other, requests from adults. It was the first time that I'd seen such a setup, although it could simply be that I wasn't paying much attention before.

The children's requests were much the same as they ever were - mainly requests for toys; although they'd been somewhat toned down from previous years, as near as I could tell. Therefore there were no requests for game consoles or other "big ticket" items like high-end athletic shoes. The adult requests were also somewhat different than what I remember. In the past, they were primarily family-oriented, and had the feel of young parents. This year, the adult requests, like those of the children, were from individuals, with ages attached. But what really struck me about it was how modest and utilitarian the requests were, such as a $30 gas card or a $40 grocery card.

It seemed sad, in a very real way, to look at the requests. While I suppose that it isn't my place to judge what a person asks of charity, I would have hoped for something a little more upbeat, something that felt more like giving gifts, rather than throwing a lifeline. But, when you're looking to do something for someone, its not about you, it's about them, and I suppose that it's worthwhile to remember than sometimes, givers cannot be choosers, either.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

That's Not What It's For

“These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
I understand the point behind the Dietary Supplement Disclaimer. If the FDA had to evaluate every last product that came on the market, they'd need to employ most of the state of New York on a full-time basis, and they'd likely still be backlogged. But it's pretty clear that many of the products that bear this disclaimer are precisely intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease - otherwise there would be no point to them in the first place. It's like making passenger cars with the disclaimer that they aren't intended for use as personal transportation.

Now, you can argue over whether or not the point of the disclaimer is protecting the public from cheaply made snake oil remedies, or protecting the big pharmaceutical companies from more cheaply available alternatives. But when the disclaimer obviates the very reason why people purchase a particular product, something seems askew.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Stage Right

If I had some modicum of skill as a dramatist, and a working knowledge of Evangelical Christian apologetics, I think that it would be very interesting to create a play, entitled "Darwin and the Devil." In it, the Devil would pose as one of Darwin's contemporaries, and encourage him to do all that he could to publicize his theory of evolution through natural selection, and at the same time, work to convince him that he must reject any and all faith in God, if he is to be true to his scientific understanding.

This occurs to me as a result of having read parts of religious tract that seeks to debunk the Theory of Evolution in general and Charles Darwin in particular. It's a very well constructed (if entirely bogus) work, that skillfully melds a plausible sounding strawman argument with a false dilemma and tops it all of with a hint of supernatural menace. (Personally, I found the inclusion of the the idea that evolution is so out of touch with reality that only the intervention of Satan himself could allow it to have persisted to the present day to be sheer brilliance.)

I find the idea that being able to effectively demonstrate that geese, for instance, evolved from a goose-like bird ancestor rather than being the result of a specific and deliberate act of individual creation to be prima facie evidence of the non-existence of a god to be fascinating. And dead wrong. Granted, while the Holy See is the final authority on matters of religion only if one happens to be Roman Catholic, I would think the fact that Popes have managed to reconcile Darwin and God would be convincing on this account. But, clearly it isn't, so I expect that a scholarly treatment of the subject would be a complete waste of time. But maybe a play would be a more entertaining and perhaps engaging way of dealing with not only the topic of science and religion, but the idea that one must choose between two ideas that are not, to all appearances, mutually exclusive.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Debate Club

The basic sequence of events:

  1. Boy, age 15, confesses to mother that he'd had "inappropriate contact" with sister, age 3.
  2. Mother calls Father, and tells him, "[...T]this isn't something you sweep under the rug."
  3. Father shows up at Mother's home with gun, beats Boy over Mother's protests, then marches him outside, and shoots him dead.
Cue random online debate, where people toss out whatever's on their minds.

But this raises an interesting question. How do you have a public debate over something like this? What does "a public debate" even mean in this circumstance?

Where Blame Is Due

Supermodel (What makes a model "super," anyway?) Kate Moss has come under fire again, this time for saying, during an online interview: "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels."

The gripe is a simple one - Young women with anorexia are latching onto the phrase as encouragement in their quests to waste away to nothing. This, being a bad thing, makes Moss' comment "irresponsible." According to one critic: "She's making unhealthy attitudes and behaviours seem somehow attractive. A lot of young girls see her as some kind of an icon so promoting these kinds of attitudes is really inappropriate. It really made me angry when I heard about it."

It's an understandable complaint, but it seems to miss the mark. First, Moss didn't coin the phrase. Secondly, it overemphasizes Moss' role as a role model. Moss is after all, a model - people pay her to play dress-up while they take her picture. People do this because other people will pay to see the pictures of Kate Moss playing dress-up. All in all, people pay a lot of money for this - after all, this is what has made Moss into a celebrity. The models one sees in your average Victoria's Secret catalog are commonly considered pretty attractive - but very few of them are household names, and you don't hear about their every word. If Moss' super-skinny look wasn't in such high demand, it's likely that she wouldn't be such an influence on young women. It doesn't seem to make sense to harp on Moss promoting herself, when she, at the end of the day, isn't the person who decides what's in, and what's not.

But this seems to be a common trend. Gabourey Sidibe has taken some media heat for being so obese. But there doesn't seem to be much criticism of Lee Daniels for not insisting that they cast a more healthy actress for the role, and zip her into a fat suit.

Moss and Sidibe didn't make themselves famous. Someone else did it for them. Maybe they're the ones that should be taking it on the chin over the allegedly harmful messages that Moss' and Sidibe's apparent lack of remorse for their bodies are sending. In making people with unhealthy bodies into celebrities, aren't they, and the everyday people who support their celebrity status, the ones who are making unhealthy attitudes and behaviors seem somehow attractive?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Despite the fact that current statistics have been making the point that there are about six unemployed Americans for every current advertised job opening, there appears to be a Conservative undercurrent of resentment at people who are not working. While it's not a big deal, I do wonder why we don't hear any pushback against that figure, when people trot out the tired old line of "there are jobs out there, if people are willing to work." While there is a tendency among Liberals to push back against Conservatives with charges of willfully ignoring the facts in order to push their cause, I suspect that a better explanation may be a political blind spot.

In the end, one of the primary differences between the political Left and Right is their understanding of the concept of fairness. Put very generally, my understanding is that the Left tends to view the world as an Unfair place, and part of the role of the State is to make things more fair, while the Right views the world a naturally fair place, and sees Government as a threat to that fairness. Both of these worldviews create rather remarkable blind spots. Modern Liberalism has difficulty with the fact that during good economic times, that opportunities can come along even for the otherwise disadvantaged. On the other hand, modern Conservatism tends to shut down when faced with the idea that during bad times, doing everything right isn't a surefire ticket to success.

But sometimes, I will admit to the uncharitable suspicion that the stereotypical conservative blame game directed at the unemployed is due in part to a feeling of deprivation and/or compassion fatigue. One of the common refrains one hears is "if these people aren't doing everything they can to find work, why should the rest of us support them?" The implication being that if people were doing enough to find work, they should be entitled to public aid. And as in other things, people tend to justify the decisions that they make, so it seems reasonable that when people feel that times are tough for them, they'll be less willing to judge others as being worthy of a piece of the shrinking pie.

Tangentially, I have to say that my first response to a news story that proclaimed "State's jobless rate lets employers ask more from potential hires," was: "In other news today, it's been confirmed that water is wet." But something else occurred to me as I read the article. The majority of people don't receive new jobs through answering want ads. Being a preferred candidate for a job when it becomes available is more common. But I suppose one has to compile statistics somehow, and counting up the openings on Monster is as good a means as any other.

Don't Believe It

It's become fashionable among the ranks of anti-Liberal populists to blame President Obama for everything from the perceived loss of American prestige overseas, to increasing crime rates here at home. (This is likely at least in part a response to anti-Conservative populists blaming President Bush for higher oil prices to the collapse of the dot-com bubble, back when he was in office.) Common reasoning seems to understand the President as "secretly" anti-American, to simply incompetent.

But this raises an interesting question: If John McCain had become President, would he have managed to avoid all of these issues? These same people regard Senator McCain (and pretty much any/everyone else who espouses the right politics) as being patriotic and capable - therefore it follows that they are convinced that the United States would be in a stronger position vis-a-vis the Chinese, that the economy would be better and that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be on a clear path to victory.

That seems like too much hype for anyone to live up to.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Money of Love

So I'm watching television and the following spot comes on: A woman is teaching her husband/boyfriend how to ice skate. Anyway, he's a complete newbie, and can barely keep his feet under him. He finally makes his way over to a tree adjacent to the pond, and grabs a hold of it with one hand, while reaching in his pocket with the other. When his significant other gracefully skates over to see after him he pulls out a jewelry box and opens it. It's now HER turn to nearly plant her backside on the ice, as she literally goes weak in the knees after seeing the gift.

At the risk of sounding like a Troll (You know, Trolls are terminally un-romantic - must be that inability to survive contact with sunlight.), I have to say: "Really? Women really go weak in the knees over chain-store jewelry? C'mon, now."

I understand the overall point of the spot. But I don't understand how a bit of comic overacting is supposed to get me to drop hundreds of dollars on what is, after all, simply a nice trinket. And I really don't get how playing up the stereotype that a woman's understanding of being loved is directly proportional to the amount spent on her is at all romantic.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

All Together Now

There's been a lot of going back and forth about the Stupak Amendment, which will basically prevent any insurer that receives federal funds under the lumbering health-care reform legislation from covering abortion services. Incidentally, this represents a pretty substantial victory for the Right. And also demonstrates why the Democrats, who generally can't manage to agree on what to put on a pizza, let alone how to govern the nation, will never be the hyper-liberal juggernaut that Republicans like to scare their constituents with.

As a practical matter, the way American politics is structured, a cohesive minority, as long as they're properly distributed (but not too dispersed) throughout the population can do pretty much whatever it pleases. The brilliant part of Republican politics is that despite the fact that they commonly have that properly distributed cohesive minority, they hammer away at the minority aspect of it, to keep their constituents unified in the face of the imaginary hobgoblin of Liberal policies designed to marginalize and victimize them.

I suspect that it's difficult to be a student of American politics and not notice this interesting tendancy. In Democratic politics, dissenters tend to find themselves in positions of strength - able to wrest often very distasteful concessions from colleagues with relatively little fear of repercussions. On the other hand, in Republican politics, dissenters are often in a position of weakness, and likely to be the first targets of the Republican political machine come the next election. I expect that this is due to differences in overall party strategies. While Democrats tend to run on the strength of their personalities, personal stories and/or the ability to enrich their districts (by borrowing money from overseas, and saddling the nation as a whole with the bill), Republican politics has evolved into a very rigid litmus test based on their particular "Evangelopatriotic" orthodoxy. (You could make the point that fiscal conservatism is also a part of it, but I find that Republicans are commonly only concerned with reigning in spending in the sense and to the extent that it hobbles Democratic efforts to buy greater support among the electorate with new entitlements, while Republicans themselves have learned to have no qualms about doing the same, or otherwise writing massive checks to fund their own priorities, and the Devil take the man who counsels fiscal prudence.) While Karl Rove's idea of a "permanent Republican majority" was laughably premature, there is a large enough core of Conservative True Believers that a fractured Left will never really be able to ignore them in the foreseeable future, and there will always be a united group of lawmakers, with the ability to leverage that unity into effectiveness. And as long as they remain effective, they'll retain a certain level of appeal that will cement their relevance.

Be Prepared

Former President George W Bush's last attorney general, Michael Mukasey, said: "The Justice Department claims that our courts are well suited to the task. Based on my experience trying such cases and what I saw as attorney general, they aren't."
New York 9/11 trial ignites row
Perhaps, Mr. Mukasey, if either you, your predecessor, Alberto Gonzales or his predecessor, John Ashcroft, had been more active in laying the groundwork for correctly and appropriately putting terror suspects on trial, our courts would be better suited to the task. Granted, the Attorney General, being a member of the Executive Branch, isn't really responsible for the actions of the Judiciary. But given a Republican majority in Congress that pretty much did any and everything it was told, you really couldn't manage to set up a proper venue for such a trial, in the more than seven years that President Bush was in office after the attacks?

The Politics of (Foreign) Boogeymen

Now, unless you've been living under a very large rock, with no cable or internet, on Mars, you're likely aware that Attorney General Holder has announced that a handful of men that the United States currently holds in connection with the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be brought to the United States for trial in civilian courts.

Given that it's a Democratic administration that's making this call, Republicans are, predictably, sounding the alarm that we're being lead into disaster.

[Members of Congress as well as relatives of victims and neighbors of the federal courthouse] argued that [...] bringing [Al Queda suspects] into the United States would heighten the risk of another terrorist attack, that civilian trials increase the risk of disclosing classified information, and that if the detainees were acquitted they could be released into the population.

“We should not be increasing the danger of another terrorist strike against Americans at home and abroad,” said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York.
Accused 9/11 Mastermind to Face Civilian Trial in N.Y.
My response to this is: Let me get this straight - the same people who have maintained for nearly a decade now that it's possible for the United States to a) manage to pacify two foreign nations, b) completely expunge them of, if not anti-American feeling, people who are willing to take violent anti-American action, and c) install governments that will be friendly to the West in general and the United States in particular AND be considered legitimate by their constituents while d) actively decreasing the risk to our national security and citizenry - are now utterly convinced that we're sowing the seeds of our own destruction by putting accused terrorists on trial, rather than simply holding them for the rest of their natural lives without charge. Note that despite the fact that members of Congress are quick to expect us to believe them when tell us, over and over, how unrelentingly dangerous these people are, they are dubious about the ability of the United States Department of Justice to make that same point under formal circumstances.

Uh huh. Yeah. Right.

And I think that I'm also annoyed with the idea that these guys are either so guilty or so angry that if a jury does find that they didn't do it, that they're still too dangerous to let go.

Playing Catch-Up

Sorry... It's been a while since I posted - I've been busy working on a professional certification, to increase my "marketability." (I'm wondering if a new package design or flashy television commercials would also help.) Anyway, now that that's done, I have time to get back to random bloviation.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A New Metaphor

We should think of the Internet as being a bridge. It connects people to all sorts of information about people, places and things that would otherwise be inaccessible, and, as anyone who has spent much time on internet forums or chat rooms can tell you, it's home to many, many trolls.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yes, Yes, It's An Outrage

As if to demonstrate their complete and total disregard for the general public, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup received shipments of swine flu vaccine, while there are still small-town doctors and public-health clinics that haven't gotten all the doses that they need. And of course, the news media were all over it, making sure that we knew that undeserving banking executives were getting vaccines while there were still poor widows and orphans living in fear of the deadly H1N1 virus.

Except... that's not really the way it went down. The state of New York, having been given the authority to dispense vaccine as they saw fit, allowed large employers to apply for doses, so that they could vaccinate their high-risk employees in the workplaces. Shocking, I know. Of course, this is really only an issue because of the financial crisis. If people weren't currently ready to string up anyone who's ever worked within 100 yards of a bank this wouldn't be all over the papers and the airwaves. And that same impulse to splash this story all over the place is also driving coverage that implies that wealthy bankers are being cared for, while ordinary citizens wait. Never mind the fact that people in the at-risk categories work at banks, and other major employers in New York, like Time Inc. and Columbia University also received doses for their employees. Even reasonably complete stories, like this Associated Press piece tend to play up the fact that Wall Street is receiving vaccine before everyone on Main Street (those Main Streeters who aren't convinced that the vaccine is either absurdly dangerous or a government plot, anyway) has gotten theirs.

As much play as various stories about media outlets being politically biased are receiving, it's important to remember that first and foremost, media is a business, and a business driven by eyeballs. And nothing gathers eyeballs like a controversy, even if the editors have to create one themselves.

Of course, we as the public should know this by now, and not be quite so easily taken in. Fool me once, shame on you - fool me about once a week on an ongoing basis, and I probably really am a fool.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Booga, Booga

So today I received a flyer from a group calling itself the "Campaign for Responsible Health Care Reform," exhorting me to call a number NOW to register my displeasure with my congresspeople (Representative and Senators). Of course, why it's responsible for me to start calling people simply because someone sends me a flyer in the mail telling me to do so is left unanswered. It turns out that this "Campaign for Responsible Health Care Reform" is an arm of the United States Chamber of Commerce, and an ideological slant was immediately apparent. It turns out that "Real Reform" is this wonderful thing that brings all sorts of benefits, without costing anyone a dime (and, of course, it comes with no details), while what Congress has in mind is just about increasing costs and cutting services.

It's unfortunate that the flyer didn't arrive in time for Halloween - it would have made for a terrifying decoration all by itself.

Of course, in the political scheme of things, someone at the USCoC should be drawn and quartered. The sort of blatant fear-mongering that this flyer represents is a travesty. People should become involved in their government because they understand that it benefits them to be more involved - not because some group with an agenda of its own is spreading fear around like manure. But fear works, and so we're going to see more of it, coming to a mailbox near you.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Let's Start A Party

Now that the Republican Party is turning the long knives on anyone who can even spell the word "Moderate" perhaps it's really time to see a viable third party in American Politics, one that doesn't spend its time pretending that it can appeal both the the extremes and the center. While Ross Douthat thinks that this could be a wonderful job for small regional parties, I disagree with his notion that at the national level, there's only room in this town for two camps.

As anyone who's played Dungeons and Dragons (yes, I'm being uncool again) can tell you, attempting to fit large numbers of people into even nine pigeonholes is a very tough job. Forcing everyone in a nation of 300 million to pick from one of two political positions seems to be a recipe for mass apathy, as people who can't find a home in one or the other simply drop out, pushing both parties to become even more shrill and extreme as they fight to keep the outer edges of the spectrum energized. Of course, adding only a single new party won't put an end to this, but it will allow for those people who have more in common with each other than they have differences to create a organized center that, while not freeing the people from partisanship, will at least create a partisan orthodoxy that doesn't demand that one side only with the political outer reaches.

It's incorrect to think that a nationwide third party will automagically make everything better. It's entirely possible that grouping moderates together could create just as many, if not more, problems than it solves. But, I'm willing to chance it.

Moderates wanted.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Season

It's that season again, as Election Day looms right around the corner. As usual, I don't yet know who I plan to vote for. Mainly because despite all I know about the various candidates for this or that local office, I don't seem to know the first thing about they actually plan to do. Yeah, I know they'll clean up government, fight for my values and make everything right with the world - but these are platitudes, not project plans. And I know that the other candidate will waste public money, sell us out to special interests and actively undermine anything resembling good governance - but as we all know, the point behind negative campaigning isn't to help people choose a candidate, but to try and convince people who might vote for the opposition to stay home.

So I feel that I'm awash in information, but that I still don't know enough to make an informed choice. Which makes me glad that elections aren't any more frequent than they are. Voting is too important to take lightly, but, it seems, too inexact to be too feel certain you've got it right.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

And Then There Were None

Well, the other sign is now gone. It seems, at least in my neighborhood, the debate is over. I wonder who won.

Monday, October 19, 2009

And Then There Was One

When I drove by the corner where the dueling signs over Referendum 71 had been set up (see previous post), I noticed that there was only one sign remaining, with no trace of its erstwhile sparring partner.

Given that the election isn't until early next month, it seems unlikely that it would have been taken down by the people who put it there, so I'm guessing someone swiped it, likely someone who disagreed with its position (or perhaps, just its positioning). It's something that seems to be gaining ground in political circles - the idea that the best debate is one in which only your side heard.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Which One Matters?

Every issue has two sides. And if you're lucky, only two.The current crop of election-season signs. Looks to be a good harvest this year.

On the ballot in Washington State this year is Referendum Measure 71. If approved, it would allow Engrossed Second Substitute Senate Bill 5688 to be enacted into law. According to the voter's pamphlet, this "would expand the rights, responsibilities, and obligations accorded state-registered same-sex and senior domestic partners to be equivalent to those of married spouses, except that a domestic partnership is not a marriage." It's up for a vote because opponents of the expanded role of (specifically) same-sex partners launched a petition drive to have the whole matter put to a vote of the public. It's been, ahem, somewhat contentious ever since.

Both sides have engaged in the now-standard political rhetoric to make their cases - A vote for will be a vote to protect all Washington Families, a vote against will a vote to preserve the greater social good, blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda. It's the same as it always has been, and it basically misses the point. Or at least the point as I've come to understand it.

From where I stand, both sides of this debate are really attempting to make the same appeal to the voting public: "Tell us that we're relevant." Same sex couples (and their supporters, on their behalf) are looking for the perception of first-class citizenship - an acknowledgment that, in the greater American scheme of things, that they matter. The (mainly religious) opposition is looking to be told that they are still an important force in society - you could make the argument that they're asking for affirmation that this is still a Christian nation. (But unless all it takes to be Christian is going to church once a week and paying lip service to certain principles, I suspect that train left the station a very long time ago.)

Of course, this isn't really a situation in which the two positions are, by definition, mutually exclusive. And I expect that if you were to ask those who support R-71 (who, due to the vagaries of the initiative system, were opposed to it coming up for a vote in the first place), they would tell you they have no fundamental problem with the other side. But, and perhaps this is simply indicative of the most vocal boosters of conservative politics these days, the opposition to R-71 would earnestly tell you that you have to chose one side or the other. (In a distressingly familiar echo of time gone by, you're either with them, or against them.)

We'll see what "society" has to say. (I suspect that it won't be much... the only items on the statewide ballot are R-71 and Initiative 1033, so I expect that "turnout" {It's a vote-by-mail election.} will be somewhat low.) It's likely that whoever loses won't be willing to let things lie, so this could be the start of a very long back-and-forth campaign, with each side pleading to be told that they're relevant.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

OMG! You MUST Read This!!!!!

Earlier today, a co-worker showed me an e-mail that his brother had forwarded on to him. The top of it shouted in large, bold capitals that the message contained political cartoons that you (as the reader) would otherwise never see, because they were from Australia.

Except for the fact that they weren't from Australia, unless The Times-Picayune has gone very, very, far offshore. It turned out to be simply a series of conservative (as in anti-Democrat) cartoons from the likes of Glen McCoy, Chuck Asay, and others. Far from having to subscribe to am Australian newspaper to read them, all you'd likely need to do is navigate over to Slate.

In a similar vein, I've gotten e-mails myself from family and friends that take something reasonable, and wrap it up in hysteria.

All of this makes me wonder what it is about people that they don't seem to regard certain information as worthwhile for it's own sake, but as something that needs to be tarted up to attract people's attention. While these sorts of things tend to take on a life of their own in the wilds of the Internet, someone made the decision to try to make these things more attractive to readers, by claiming American cartoons are actually Australian, or that the vague recollections of an attendee of a self-defense seminar are actually warnings from a police officer. I mean, if your family and friends are conservative Republicans, why wouldn't political cartoons critical of President Obama and Democrats in general from New Orleans or Denver be of interest? Why would you feel the need to attribute self-defense advice to a police officer? Is that really the only circumstance under which people would read it?

I suspect that part of it is simply the sheer volume of information that comes our way. But I think that part of it also lies with the fact that perhaps we aren't as selective as we should be with the information we share, and therefore, we have to do more work to convince people that THIS random e-mail that we forwarded without fact-checking is somehow more worthy than the other 20 that we sent over the past month. It seems to me that the best way to get information through to someone is to be understood as a credible source. Time consuming, yes, but it pays off in the long run.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Let the Partisan Bickering Begin

The back-and-forth over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama is as certain as death and taxes to be partisan and rancorous. The fact that Jimmy Carter and Al Gore also won the prize recently is sure to have the conservative punditry accusing the Nobel committee of being so biased to the left, that the prizes are pure politics. Of course, those who appreciate the award will make their equally faith-based defense of the prizes as absolutely non-political, and the shouting will continue.

But hopefully, from the sidelines, it will be fun to watch.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Six Degrees of Sarah Palin

Father of Palin's grandson to pose for Playgirl.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre things about American celebrity culture is how certain famous people become a strange sort of composite being, encompassing themselves and a seemingly random constellation of other people. These other people don't normally seem to become well-known in their own right, but rather act as a means for the primary celebrity's name to stay in the news (for better or for worse), even when they aren't doing much, if anything, newsworthy. Because of this strange relationship, the satellite individuals tend to pop up, whack-a-mole like, at unpredictable intervals, but rarely, it seems, in such a way that they ever come any closer to entering the public imagination on their own.

The "father of Palin's grandson" is merely the latest iteration of this strangeness. The young man has a name, and while many people (like myself) know what it is, his name on its own isn't enough to gather eyeballs. Which makes me wonder how successful his latest publicity stunt will wind up being. But that aside, I wonder how long it will be before he ceases to be a strange appendage of the former Alaska governor, and either fades away, or manages to somehow become the one at the center of a group of vaguely famous unknowns.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Shepherd Wanted

Also on Marketplace this weekend was an interview with Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren, who was talking about her favorite cause, a proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

One of the things that this new agency would do, if Professor Warren had her way, is ensure that financial products would be short, simple and easy to understand. One of her favorite stories is about the increase in the length of credit-card agreements, from about a page and a half in the nineteen-eighties, to more than 30 pages now. This is a problem, in the Professor's eyes, because credit-card issuers tend to bury "revenue enhancers" deep in the document, where the customer tends not to read it. The CFPA wouldn't outlaw this practice, but it would require that issuers offer cards that had the simple page-and-a-half agreements of yesteryear.

I understand this, but it seems to me that there's a better idea - try to break people of the habit of signing documents that they don't understand. If, back in the day, when card-issuers increased the length of agreements from two pages to four, people stopped signing on, credit-card agreements would still be two pages. Not to say that greed on the part of the issuers isn't a driving factor in things, passivity on the part of the public is also a major part of it. One which the CFPA, by simply accepting, doesn't do anything to discourage.

In many ways, Professor Warren has suggested a typical Left-leaning solution. And like many, this one seems to have a basic flaw in it. In an attempt to make the world safer for passivity, the Left seems to have embarked on a never-ending quest to find a Good Shepherd to protect us from the wolves. But shepherds eat mutton, too.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Measurable Commitment

I was listening to a story on Marketplace concerning discouraged workers, those people who could, in theory, be working, but aren't currently in the market for a job. Interestingly, they aren't technically unemployed, and so the standard unemployment rate calculations don't include them. Marketplace correspondent Mitchell Hartman asked University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh why this is.

Their commitment to work is clearly less. They aren't looking in the last month, for whatever reason.
Leaving aside for a moment the vaguely insulting tone of Hamermesh's comment, since when is the idea of the unemployment rate to measure the public's "commitment to work?" I suppose that this would be a legitimate question for someone from the Bureau of Labor Statistics; but then again, so is why the unemployment rate only includes those people who are actively looking in the first place.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gratification For Sale

So I saw that Glen Beck has a new book out. Unsurprisingly, the point appears to be telling conservatives both how smart they are, and how stupid liberals are. And then a thought came to me:

Beware of people selling flattery.
Flattery is a pernicious enough force as it is, even when people are giving it away for free. We like to think that we're above people simply telling us what we want to hear, all the while thinking that the tactic survives solely on the gullibility of others. But all belief, all perception of truth, is based on a willingness to believe. (Despite what we might think, it's actually not possible to make someone believe something that they don't wish to.) And while we may be unwilling to believe that someone offering free compliments is on the up-and-up, it becomes trickier when we've paid for the privilege of being told how wonderful, bright and wise we are.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Evidently, time was a wastin'

The woman in the Lexus SUV behind me kept looking down at something while we were on the one ramp this morning. It was rush hour, so the ramp was metered. We'd sit, roll forward a car or truck length, sit, roll forward, wash, rinse, repeat. And when I'd stop, I'd glance in my rear-view mirror. The woman behind me was dividing her time between watching where she was going, and whatever it was she was fiddling with - texting, reading e-mail, whatever. If she'd only looked down when stopped, it would have been better, but she'd let her car roll up behind mine, while her attention was seemingly fixed on her lap.

I know that I seemed obsessive about it, but I'd once been stopped been stopped at a red light, and the person behind me had better things to do than keep his mind on what he was doing, he'd rolled into me, putting a football-sized dent in the back of my car, and consigning me to several weeks of being folded into Origami by a sadistic chiropractor. So I was very attentive to her. But no so much that I didn't realize the irony that on the radio, at that same time, was this story: Government Eyes Crackdown On Texting And Driving.

I understand bans on Texting and Driving are becoming more popular, but I don't think that it's really the way to go. Mainly because I don't think that it really hits the target. Think of the last time you heard or read someone saying that the time you spend in a car, going from one place to another, as "wasted," "unproductive" or an "under-utilized resource to be reclaimed" - even when YOU'RE the one doing the driving? Not that long ago, was it? Why do we deride time used watching where we're going on the the road as misspent? The woman behind me was clearly of the opinion that whatever it was she was doing was too important to wait. So, she divided her time and attention between driving, and the other activity - much to my consternation. (By the way, she didn't wind up rear-ending me.) But she was doing something that garners a lot of respect in today's world - "multitasking." She was doing something "constructive" in time that we currently have little respect for.

In an earlier story on Texting and Driving (which I commented on at NPRs site), one David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah, is quoted as saying: "When it becomes stigmatized and you have the legislation and education and science all together as a package, you'll change people's behavior. And until you have that package in place, you're not going to see systematic changes in driver behavior." This is helpful, but it might miss the greater point. To make the roads safer, perhaps we should stigmatize the entire idea that time devoted to nothing other than controlling a moving motor vehicle is somehow wasted - a "gap" in which other, more important things can be done.

I know that I'll spend less time looking in my rear-view mirror.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Offroading the Moral High Ground

"Hummer Owners Claim Moral High Ground To Excuse Overconsumption, Study Finds"
How's THAT for a headline? Unfortunately, I haven't read the study myself - mainly because, so far, I've been too cheap to pay the University of Chicago ten dollars to download a PDF copy. But from the short Science Daily article and other peices I read concerning the study, I didn't see anything that indicates that the authors of the study explicitly defined owning a Hummer as "overconsumption," or that the people they interviewed lived lavish lifestyles as a whole.
"Our analysis of the underlying American identity discourses revealed that being under siege by (moral) critics is an historically established feature of being an American," write the authors.
You think? But here's the thing. People who own Hummers DO take flack, and a lot of it, from "(moral) critics." Some of this is because it's pretty easy to use one's personal understanding of morality to be a jackass. But it's also inherent in the idea of morality. Once you define an action (or inaction) as a moral imperative, criticism and condemnation of people who do otherwise is a pretty simple next step.
"Hummer Owners Take The High Ground, Defend Overconsumption With Patriotism"
Of course, those people who like to aim their weekly Two Minutes Hate at Hummers and those who love them had no problem taking aim at the 20 subjects (yep, the study covers just 20 Hummer owners*) and savaging them in blogs and online message boards didn't seem to realize that they were busily validating the very feeling of "being under siege by (moral) critics" that the study described. It seems that utter blindness to blatantly obvious irony is another side effect of strongly-held moral beliefs.

* I find it difficult to believe that 20 people would honestly be considered to be a representative sample of Hummer owners. Self-selection bias in respondents aside, as of 2008, the H3 alone had sold just North of 150,000 units. Not to mention the fact that when you're doing a study on "Consumer Identity Work as Moral Protagonism," you kind of have to rule out everyone who sees their auto purchasing decisions as having the same moral weight as the shoes they wear to work that day.

Coffee and a Hot Bun

The Seattle area, as you may have heard, has coffee places about every 12 to 15 feet. You can't toss an empty Starbucks' cup without it landing on an espresso bar. Given this saturated market. operators have been using sex to sell caffeine, as I've mentioned before.

Well, it seems that in addition to selling coffee, one can use sex to sell, well, sex - or something like it. (Who knew?) It seems that in the city of Everett, north of Seattle, "Bikini Baristas," as they're commonly termed, have been taking money to let patrons touch them on the breasts or buttocks, or to flash a little more skin than the law allows. From the descriptions, it doesn't sound much different than a Spring Break party - which given the ages of the baristas, makes perfect sense.

The surprise here is the legal implication - the young women involved are being charged with prostitution. While I understand that jurisdictions are free to create their own definitions of crimes, this sounds a bit like charging the participants of the bar brawl with attempted murder. So this raises an interesting question. How much latitude do jurisdictions have in defining their terms? Also of interest is the fact that this case has prompted Everett to update its laws. Not the laws on prostitution, but lewd conduct, presumably to make it easier to rein in the Bikini Barista establishments. I'm sure there will be plenty of volunteers for enforcement patrols.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Itsy Bitsy

The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout,
Six months of rain, then washed the spider out,
Then sometime next year, the Sun dried up the rain,
But the itsy-bitsy spider had moved to sunny Spain.



That's not the way the song goes!

It is here in Seattle...

Sunday Driver

Fortunately, there wasn't much traffic.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hear No Evil

I hadn't really been paying much attention to the man. In order to be heard above the quiet drone of traffic, meandering tourists and other pedestrians, he'd raised his voice, but he wasn't even quite shouting, let alone near the top of his lungs. He was dressed in a clean t-shirt, with religious slogans front and back. He wasn't quite White, but wasn't clearly of any other recognizable ethnicity. Two confederates were stationed nearby, each with a sign as large as bedroom door, busy with text.

His sort was down by Westlake every time I'd been there, and today, he was perched upon something (I never did bother to find out what) on a corner, haranguing passerby with stern warnings that they would burn in Hell, unless they stopped what they were doing and made Jesus Christ their personal Lord a Savior that very moment. In addition to the stick, he held out the carrot that God would free them from all wrongful sexuality - adultery, fornication, homosexuality, et cetera. (Although somehow, if I had to chose whether this particular man were a happy husband or a bitter celibate, I would have gladly wagered the rent money on the latter.) For a moment I was reminded of a preacher friend from Chicago who often lamented that too many people felt Morality consisted of nothing more than not sleeping with the wrong people, and I wondered why this man's helpful God didn't see fit to free those who came to him of their other Deadly Sins.

After taking all of this in a moment after I'd first seen him, and dutifully filing it away under "never reference again," I was just getting back to acting as though the man had never existed when it was pointed out to me that there seemed to be something in his ear. I looked up, now paying closer attention, and noticed it. Curious, I waited to see if he would turn around, so I could his other side. After a few moments he did, and I snickered to myself.

"What is it..?"

"He's wearing earplugs." I answered.

Open Secret

In local news, there is a continuing low-level controversy over Referendum 71, which is intended to put a state law, commonly known as the everything-but-marriage law, to a public vote. A bit of the backstory: the state legislature basically passed a law expanding domestic partnership rights. Religious conservatives and activists (under the clichéd and disingenuous name of "Protect Marriage Washington") were more or less immediately up in arms, and came up with Referendum 71. Their goal, stated simply, is to have the new law voted out of existence by the public. For those of you fortunate enough to not have to deal with this sort of malarkey, the process starts like this: After whomever comes up with the proposed Referendum/Initiative formally writes it up, they have to gather signatures to have it put on the ballot in the next election cycle.

Now, under normal circumstances, the names of everyone who signs a petition to have a measure placed on the ballot is a matter of public record. And here's where the controversy begins. Working under the assumption that each and every person who signed the petitions to have Referendum 71 placed on the ballot supports the goal of the Referendum backers - namely to keep domestic partnership rules from being expanded, Gay rights activists want to publish all of the names on a website. Their ostensible goal is to allow for people who would be barred (namely Gays and Lesbians) from taking advantage of domestic partnerships to know who's standing in their way. Pretty much everyone else understands the goal is to allow angry people so show up on the doorsteps of signatories. So, the people behind the referendum went to court to block the release of the names. The state is the defendant, given that it's a state open government law being challenged.

Right now, it's looking like the names won't be released. U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle doesn't feel that an important enough public purpose is being served. The state disagrees.

"When people sign a referendum or initiative petition, they are trying to change state law," [Brian Zylstra, spokesman for Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed] said. "We believe that changing state law should be open to public view."
Zylstra had come to the correct conclusion (government should be open) - but he arrived there through execrably wrong reasoning. I'm pretty sure that no state law has ever been changed simply because people signed a referendum or initiative petition. The process that changes state law is VOTING on the referendum or initiative once it on the ballot - and the voting process here, like everywhere else, is anonymous.

Properly speaking, the whole idea of gathering signatures is to determine whether or not some percentage of the voters feel that a) this is something that should be voted on by the whole of the voting public, or b) it's a waste of time and ballot ink. What's ended up happening is that the petition drive has become, in effect, a referendum on the referendum, and signing the petition is taken as evidence that the signatory supports the goal(s) of the Referendum/Initiative. In other words, the process is seen as an initial demonstration of support for the measure, that determines whether or not it's worth taking to the ballot.

Judge Settle, the Secretary of State's Office, Protect Marriage Washington and the Gay rights activists are all working, through the way they talk about this case, to conflate the petitioning process with the voting process, when these should be kept separate. This reinforces the misconception already at work. If I sign a petition to have something put on the ballot - or decline to sign - that's independent of whether or not I would vote For or Against - I'm only expressing an opinion as to the appropriateness of a public vote.

I can (grudgingly) understand the activist groups on both sides getting it wrong, but I would expect the the Secretary of State's Office and the Judiciary to be able to understand the difference between "Should this proposed change be voted on by the general public?" and "Should this proposed change be enacted into law?" I understand that interest groups have hijacked the petitioning process, deliberately work to blur the lines between it and the voting process, but this should be resisted, not given legal standing.

Of all the factors to base legal precedent on, public misunderstanding seems a flimsy foundation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Right There! Next To The Couch!

“The outrage we see in America has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with the policies that he [President Obama] is promoting.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner
Yeah. And I'm the King of Siam. This is why I can't be a politician. I could never make a statement like that with a straight face. The idea that there isn't a single person among those protesting the President's policies who isn't also (or actually) opposed to their being a non-white person in the White House is as patently ludicrous as the idea that not a single black person voted for him out of wanting to see just that.

But Boehner is a politician, and a senior one, and one doesn't get that far in American politics without knowing when a flattering, if obvious, falsehood is better than a truth that people don't want to hear about themselves. Or, as is more likely the case, makes them look bad in front of others. Representative Boenher's disingenuousness in this matter is partially driven by the idea that there is something deeply wrong with opposing the President because of the color of his skin. (Aside: Barack Obama is not African-American in the same way that most blacks in the United States are African-American - i.e., as a result of their ancestors having been brought or coming to this country some generations back from Sub-Saharan Africa. The President is African-American by virtue of the fact that one of his parents was African, and the other {a white} American. It is likely this difference that accounts, in part, for his worldview and, frankly is political success. The way many people understand him to be African-American speaks to the use of the term as primarily a euphemism for skin color.) As much as the Conservative/Republican stereotype abhors Political Correctness, it demands that Boehner not expose that constituency to criticism. Thus, he publicly pretends that overt racism is a thing of the (distant) past, rather than 'fessing up, and basically saying “Yeah? What of it? There are people who dislike the President because of the color of his skin, but we shouldn't let that distract us from the real policy differences that people have with him.”

Of course, such a frank assessment would be pounced upon (and surely taken out of context) by the likes of the Huffington Post, which is really too bad. As long as people refuse to acknowledge the elephant (no pun intended) in the room, it can't be lead outside, and thus the space remains uncomfortably crowded.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

And Nothing But The Truth

"How do you know a politician is lying?
His lips are moving."
Timeworn political cliché, masquerading as humor.
I was young when I first heard this, and I found it true, funny, clever and most of all, mature. I was still at the age when being an adult meant adopting a carefully calibrated level of all-around cynicism, meticulously balanced against those of my peers, and this fit in perfectly.

But, like a lot of conventional wisdom, this particular bit is untrue. It's actually somewhat rare for a professional politician to flat out lie - as in saying something that they understand to be false. The reason for this is simple - someone out there knows the facts of the matter, and you can bet that the Truth Machine will call out anyone it catches. In some cases, of course, it doesn't actually matter. The polarized and politically chauvinistic culture that's been taking root in the United States does make blatant falsehood easier to get away with, as a high level of partisan activism tends to lead people to overlook dishonesty that serves The Cause. By the same token, one's critics are unlikely to give credit for even scrupulous honesty in any event, so the disincentive to lie lessens as overt partisanship grows. Still, deliberate falsehood is nowhere near as common as angry partisans (or random cynics) make it out to be.

More likely is, quite simply, a basic tendency to tell people what they want to hear. Couple this with telling them that they're above backing people who do nothing but tell them what they want to hear (and keeping a straight face while you're at it), and voila! It works, because for the most part, people want to believe that they're ready to hear the cold hard facts, that they can handle the truth, and they're above shooting the messenger.
"In the summer and early fall of 2006, when it was obvious the United States was failing in Iraq, the American people most likely would have rejoiced if the president had leveled with them, said he knew the strategy was not working and that he had begun an intensive review."
Bob Woodward, The War Within.
Outside of my general annoyance with the overuse of the phrase "the American people," when "we, the public" would suffice (Woodward is from Geneva, Illinois, not Geneva, Switzerland), Woodward's statement bugs me because it assumes something that, with the reality of American politics, seems nonsensical. Given the tendency of nearly the whole of the American political class, to a person, to avoid leveling with the public at all costs, we are to assume that none of them realize that the public is hungry for the unvarnished truth and will reward them for it? Politicians are often acutely aware of what the public will reward or punish them for, and if they aren't, there's someone on the payroll whose job it is to make them aware of it. If leveling with the public "most likely" brought celebrations and accolades, we'd be continuously flooded with scrupulously honest assessments of everything from the federal budget to the state of the drains. But we aren't.

The fact is, we have visions of ourselves and the world that we want to be true, and that we're deeply invested in. And we DO shoot the messenger, and sometimes, people associated with the messenger. And so what the less charitable are wont to condemn as lies are actually usually the truth - chopped up, repackaged and spun as required into a form that carefully removes all of the unpleasant gristly bits that would make it less appealing. Of course, one can intentionally lead you to an incorrect understanding of a situation through careful selection of absolutely true statements, and there are times when politicians do just that. But this again, is something that the Truth Machine would call one on, so I think that it too is less common than is generally supposed. More likely, perhaps, is the obvious overpromise born of (often clearly tenuous) assumptions that (unsurprisingly) turn out not the true - the economy changes or the rest of Congress isn't as accommodating as one wants them to be.

Being frank about the risks and downsides of the policies one espouses is, within the political arena, seen as a sign of weakness, and an opening to an opponent who will dutifully step up and strongly imply to your constituents that there is such a thing as a free lunch - or at least one paid for entirely by people they don't like. While we like to think that we're too smart to fall for such obvious sycophancy (even if our neighbors of the wrong partisan persuasion - those egregious wastes of voting rights - aren't) it's clear that many, if not all, of us have to be wrong about that for the practice to be as widespread as it is. But that's different from lying. And it's a distinction worth making.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lost In The Minefield

In last weekend's installment of On The Media, Bob Garfield spoke with one David Goodman, about an article he'd written for Mother Jones, Data Minefield. During the interview, Goodman asserts that one of the ways that the Army covertly reaches out to young people is through popular video games.

DAVID GOODMAN: Halo 3 is one of the most popular video games released several years ago. What is unknown is that the primary underwriter has been the U.S. Army.


The Army’s presence can be seen in the use of actual U.S. Army-provided graphics throughout the game. There are also links to the U.S. Army recruiting website,, which is, the Army tells me, probably its most effective recruiting tool.
On The Media: Transcript of "The Thousand-Yard Snare"
There is however, one problem with Goodman's assertions - they're incorrect. They struck me as strange when I heard the story on OTM, so I looked up a couple of friends of mine who work at Bungie, the development studio behind the Halo franchise (although the Halo games are owned by Microsoft) and asked them if they'd received either money or development help from the United States military. This is what my source told me, verbatim.
"The US Army did not provide Bungie with any graphics to be used in the Halo series of games.
The US Army did not provide Bungie with any funding for the development of the Halo series of games.
There are no links to any of the US Army's websites within the Halo series of games."
Also as part of the answer to my question, a snippet of an internal communication was shared with me, which is partially reproduced below (Emphasis mine.):
"He [Goodman] states that Halo was underwritten by the US Army and that they also provided graphics for us to use. He also says there are links in Halo 3 to, which leads me to believe that he is confusing the actual development of Halo 3 with Microsoft’s Halo 3 competition that was a promotional vehicle for the Army that they sponsored on Xbox Live last year (which we had no official involvement in)."
Based on this, I feel pretty confident in saying that there's a good reason why the Army's underwriting of Halo 3 was unknown - because it never happened.

I'm irked by this for a couple of reasons - one is the idea that the Army was sneaking things into Halo, presumably with Bungie's help, to sucker poor, unsuspecting teenagers into signing up for the Army, when they wouldn't have done so otherwise. Like I said, I have friends at Bungie (us Windy City expats have to have each others backs), and I was annoyed at the suggestion that Bungie would sell out its customers in that way. The second, and perhaps more important, is that Goodman is a journalist, and journalists have a responsibility to get things right. I was suspicious when I didn't see anything about the Army's supposed involvement in Halo 3 in "A Few Good Kids?" It turns out that in a different article "War Games: The Army's Teen Arsenal," Goodman makes the claim that the Army spent $1.3 million dollars "to sponsor the hit Xbox game Halo 3."

Goodman has an axe to grind here, and I suspect that this is interfering with his journalism. Had he bothered to get the facts, I think he would have been able to make his argument without taking pot shots at people who weren't involved. If you want to take the Army to task for targeting teens for recruitment efforts, fine. But that doesn't come with a blank check to claim that anyone who's involved with whatever the Army uses is also guilty. If the Army wants to sponsor an online video game competition, that's their business. It doesn't make the creators of the game accomplices, and it surely doesn't rise to the level of "underwriting."
Underwrite: 4 b : to guarantee financial support of <underwrite a project>
This isn't a secret. I obtained the information simply by asking. I think that Goodman should have been expected to do the same. The entire point behind journalism is to educate the public about things they don't already know. In order to do that, their information needs to be accurate.

(Mother Jones seems to have something against First Person Shooters in general, and Halo in particular. This piece, from 2007 seems to blame the game itself for the hateful nature of the juvenile trash talk that one often encounters in many online games. One link to the article is titled "The Magnificent Bigotry of the Halo Series," implying that the hatefulness is somehow baked into the game itself, despite the fact that it deals with the behavior of players and not content.)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Innocence vs. the Constitution

The potential execution of an innocent man by Texas (Are you surprised?) in 2004 is getting a lot of play all over the place, sparked by an article by David Grann in The New Yorker. Everyone, from the blogosphere, to web magazines, is getting into the act, and many, if not most are having trouble with the system's seeming lack of concern about the Cameron Todd Willingham case.

The trouble can be summed up very succinctly, I think. People are not sanctioned for being guilty of crimes. They are executed, jailed or fined for being convicted of crimes. Despite (or, as some cynics would tell you, in spite of) the best efforts of the criminal justice system, you may be one without being the other. The Supreme Court has never found "a constitutional right for the actually innocent to be free from execution," because, basically, if shockingly, it limits itself to the issue of conviction.

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Note that is says: "without due process of law," and not: "unless they are actually guilty of the crime." It's an important distinction, and will remain so until investigative infallibility can be reasonably achieved.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Pretty Please

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has expressed "disappointment" that the Associated Press decided to publish photos of a dying Marine Lance Corporal Joshua M. Bernard. He cited the pain that would be caused to Bernard's family if his suffering were allowed to be seen by the public. While I understand the family's position, Gates should not have become involved.

We, as a society have not, at any point, decided who is allowed to control the message about themselves, and who is not. Part of the point behind the First Amendment is that Congress, and government more broadly, is not allowed to solely own its image through using legal sanctions against those who would publicize things that conflict with the image that Congress wishes to project.

Amendment I
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.
People die in wars. Sometimes they die in brutal ways. And sometimes, other people learn of the details. I am not aware of any rule, even an unspoken one, that provides for the families of service personnel to have the final say over the message and public image of their loved ones. If we chose to create one, that is fine. But there isn't one yet, and therefore it is inappropriate for people to be held to it.

As for Gates, I am disappointed in him. Somewhere along the way, he seems to have forgotten that he made a request - precisely because he was not in the position to give an instruction. The recipient of a request may chose to honor or deny it - such is the very nature of a request. When I worked with children, I was very adamant about this point. "When you ask me a question," I would tell them, "I may answer you 'yes' or 'no.' If you do not wish to hear any answer I might give you - do not ask me the question." I was able to get a group of emotionally disturbed 13 year-olds to understand this concept - I would think that Gates would understand it was well.

Judgment and decency, as wonderful as they are, do not, and should not trump law, policy or constitutional right. Otherwise, you cannot claim to live under the rule of law, as judgment and decency are both quite subjective, and are easily warped to serve the needs of the few, at the expense of the many. Those who are unable to understand that others have different ideas of judgment and decency than themselves are perhaps unworthy to claim judgment and decency themselves.

Monday, August 31, 2009

So Let the Sideshow Begin

They even sold popcorn.This way to the big top.

I went to one of Representative Jay Inslee's town hall meetings over this past weekend. It was, as I expected, a circus part of the time. Both sides came with their minds made up, and while it didn't degenerate into both sides shouting at each other, there was a lot of shouting. There were several occasions where the anti-reform bill crowd burst into calls of "Liar!" Some of them shouted it, and some of them screamed it, but all of them had, apparently, decided that whenever Representative Inslee said something that they didn't appreciate, that he must be lying. Interestingly, really loud outbursts while someone was speaking to the Representative spurred the crowd into a collective "shush," that continued until the disturbance abated.

Of course, the anti-reform bill section of the audience was not a unified as Congressional critics of the plan would like us to believe. Their objections were all over the map, and this meant that some of them were mutually exclusive. To wit, what one critic called a potential unintended consequence of the plan, another critic termed an intentional hidden agenda, and so on. Of course, by the same token, the pro-reform bill crowd wasn't particularly unified either, and there were clearly a number of people who didn't feel the plans currently on the table went far enough.

In the end, Representative Inslee had some good information, but not very much of it (he only spoke for 15 minutes). The question-and-answer session that followed was, predictably, dominated by political talking points thinly disguised as questions. But there were some good ones that focused squarely on the topic at hand, and carried no ideological baggage. Maybe it's telling that I can only remember one of them, even though I'm pretty sure there were two or three. A young woman asked, if one were denied coverage for a given procedure, they could simply pay for it themselves out of pocket. (Apparently, in Canada and the U.K., you can't.) While she prefaced it with a story about her husband, she didn't slant the question one way or another.

Representative Jay Inslee.Representative Inslee answering a question.

The strangest part of the whole scene was the "March of Signs" (Hey, it's a good a name as any.), that started about 20 minutes before things actually got going. People would take their signs, and walk around the room holding them up, to the cheers or jeers of the crowd. It was one at a time at first, but then people started going two or three at a time, both sides jumbled together, and things became really raucous.

I made this myself!They may as well have simply read "Applause."