Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sacred Highs

NPR's Dick Meyer has a column at their web site, called Against The Grain. It's described as "a mix of sarcastic sociology and comic moral philosophy that occasionally descends into political commentary." His most recent piece, "New Lows In TV Advertising," complains about an advertisement for K-Y gel that ran after a rerun of Seinfeld that Mr. Meyer and his son were watching. Cue the requisite public despair over the "inexorable degradation of our sensibility, manners, idealism and common sense," with extra points awarded from including his son for a "but think of the children," angle. I don't know if he wrung his hands, too, but I wouldn't be surprised.

"When nothing is off-limits, when nothing is sacred, when nothing offends, then nothing is, well, sacred. Who wants a world where nothing is sacred?" Meyer asks, plaintively.

Raises hand.

Or more accurately, I don't want to live in a world where being offended and declaring things off limits becomes an obligation, where we no longer own a sense of propriety, because the sense of propriety owns us. Things should not be sacred simply because we feel a need to have things be sacred. Things should be sacred because we understand the benefit to ourselves, our community and/or our society in making them so. When that benefit is no longer present, the sense of sacredness goes away. As well it should. We have slaughtered sacred cows that prior generations of Americans held dear, and not only barbecued them with relish (but never with sauce), but counted those would object as backwards. We should not be above such treatment ourselves.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Figured That Out, Did You?

I could mock Byron York's opinion piece in the Washington Examiner, where he seems to be stating that President Obama's overwhelming support within the African-American community makes current polling numbers somehow unreliable.

But David Weigel, over at The Washington Independent, does a much better job than I ever could.

Sometimes things are best left to the professionals.

In fairness to York, his point seemed to be that while African-Americans support President Obama personally, they might not actually be as in favor of his policies as that support suggests, and so using approval numbers to gauge support for policy might produce skewed results. But, if that was his point, he made it so poorly that it's a marvel the column made it into print. And of course, that would also raise the question of whether or not personal (or racial) antipathy on the part of much more numerous White voters would have the opposite effect. So perhaps a more intelligent piece would simply have dealt with the difficulty of assessing support for policy solely by attempting to judge the popularity of the policy maker. But where's the controversy in that?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Of A Feather


Duck... (well, a Coot, actually...)


You know, I never understood why being tagged the Goose was such a bad thing...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Irony Watch

The United Kingdom charity Women's Aid, an anti-domestic violence group, released a public service announcement to raise awareness of domestic violence. But Clearcast, which must above advertisements for British television, wouldn't approve the announcement.

The reason (you know what's coming) - it was too violent. Seemingly despite the fact that Clearcast itself seems to understand that one of the places where a certain level of violence is acceptable is in public service announcements.

The fact that Clearcast seems unwilling to grant a waiver in a circumstance that they themselves specifically noted might call for one is beyond strange. It seems unlikely that whoever made the decision did so to prevent people being informed about domestic violence. But once you decide that something is so off-limits that even cautionary tales go too far, how does one advocate for change?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Today, on CrimeWatch!

In local news, a man who stabbed a church's therapy cat with a knife could possibly spend as much time in jail as a group of teenagers who robbed and beat a man who later died. The stories shared the busy Crime and Justice beat stage with the arraignment of a man charged with attempting to kidnap a boy from Pike Place Market, and a judge wrestling with whether to have a convicted rapist committed to an institution now that his sentence is up.

If there's one place where I feel the news goes all out to manipulate the audience, it's with crime stories. And today, the manipulation dial was set all the way to "manhandle." From placing the story of the sentencing of the teens and the charging of the man who attacked the cat one after the other, to an interview with a sobbing rape victim who decried as an injustice the fact that her attacker might be set free after having done his time, to the ever-popular child-in-peril story, our local ABC affiliate may as well have also been running free advertisements for the local torch and pitchfork emporium.

This bugs me, because there are no easy answers to any of this, despite what the standard emotional reaction might be. Each of the cases so quickly trotted out on this evening's news raises some really serious questions. And the news reporting offered no answers beyond a knee-jerk reflexive sense of gross miscarriage of justice. Worse yet, by tomorrow, some other story will be the flavor of the day, and these will be more or less forgotten. While "coverage that’s utterly trivial and that poisons public understanding of crucial issues" may be "rewarded by the market," Matthew Yglesias is correct to point out that this isn't a good reason for the coverage to be this way. But I don't know how you solve this problem - businesses act in a way that's rewarded by the market - that's pretty much the central defining characteristic of a successful business. Only by making news not a business can you get around this. And that leaves us with a public that's effectively willfully manipulated and misinformed about important issues. That can't end well.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Basics

So, on today's Planet Money podcast, they ran a review of Ali Velshi's new book: Gimme My Money Back: Your Guide to Beating the Financial Markets. Now, I'd never heard of Ali Velshi before that moment, and it turns out that he's a financial reporter on CNN. Mike Pesca did the review, and he pulled no punches. The basic jist of his assessment is that the book doesn't live up to its title, and is aimed at an audience that is more or less completely financially illiterate (people who don't understand the basic concept behind inflation, for instance). What's interesting is that if you go to Amazon, and look at the reviews there, you pretty much get the same thing. The reviewers seem to sort themselves into three basic, but not mutually exclusive, categories - Fans of Velshi's reporting in CNN, who are happy to have him share some of his wisdom in print form; people who would describe themselves as financially illiterate, who are happy to have things explained to them simply and who like to think of themselves as empowered and able to make knowledgeable decisions about their financial futures; and people who see the book as a waste of time, and an insult to the intelligence of anyone who understands the basics of finance and investing.

I can understand the first group, and the third group, but the second group caught me off-guard, perhaps because, I don't see myself as being particularly financially sophisticated, and so I'm impressed (and a little concerned) when I come across people who are less well educated about the subject than I am. Like many people, I suppose, I'm more likely to be critical of others in areas where I see myself as being unexceptional. Knowing the basics of finance and investing is a very useful bit of information, and it helps to make sense of the way people and businesses act when it comes to money. But for most people, the economy is something of a black box - they don't understand how it works, and really, they don't care - they just want it to work. But since we're all a part of it, it does, I think, work better when we all know something about it.

When housing prices were still rising like they'd been shot out of a cannon, a co-worker exhorted me to hurry up and get on the bandwagon. "I'll wait," I told him. My reasoning was twofold. First, being a contract employee, I couldn't guarantee my income for more than a year or two out. It seemed unwise to commit to thirty years of mortgage payments knowing that my current income stream had a finite duration. Secondly, I understood that housing prices were rising much faster than the rate of inflation - surely they couldn't go on that way forever, I reasoned - they had to at least even out for a time. (Looking back, I realize now that I have an incredible gift for understatement.) But my co-worker was adamant in his opinion that I was cutting my own throat, and locking myself out of the housing market forever. I don't know if he's underwater now on his home, but it seems that a better understanding of what was driving housing prices on the part of people like him may have kept the bubble from overinflating quite so badly.

In that regard, Velshi's book does do us a service. It inspires people to learn the basics, and it gives them a relatively painless way to do so. It may not benefit the rest of us directly, but at this point, we'll take what we can get.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Call Today! For the Children...

Earlier this week, I received another mailing from Public School Employees of Washington. They're still sounding the alarm on budget cuts coming out of Olympia. "School districts have been forced into layoffs," is warns. But the budget ax isn't done falling, as Washington State is still attempting to close a budget gap that runs to the billions of dollars. The flyer warns me that more cuts "could mean even deeper layoffs that hurt our schools and children." (I'm going to assume, for a moment, that some Public School Employees might also feel the pain is completely beside the point.) They even list a website for concerned people to go to, to Step Up For Schools.

Now, putting my own cynicism aside for a while, I understand why PSE is sounding the alarm. Self-interested or not, support staff are actually fairly important to running a school, just as they are to running any other sort of operation. What bugged me about this whole situation was the lack of a solution other than "help us flog the legislature into cutting somewhere other than schools." And of course, the tired battlecry of "think of the children!" Of course, the information one puts on a mailing has to be short and sweet, so I figured I check out their website, so see if they had suggestions for a comprehensive solution. No such luck.

While I understand the power of even a figurative gun to a child's head, simply pointing out the problem doesn't really help. The money that Public School Employees of Washington wants Olympia to restore to the schools is going to have to come from somewhere, and I'd really have a lot more respect for budgetary alarmists if they'd at least acknowledge that fact.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Somalia and the Leaden Age of Piracy

While Somali pirates have been a quietly brewing story on the back burner for years, their recent seizure of an American ship and crew suddenly lifted the SEP (Somebody Else's Problem) field that had grown up around the issue here in the United States. With their usual outrage of the fact that some lowly foreigners would dare to attack anything American, angry commentators have been filling online comment pages with calls for ground invasions and carpet bombings.

Of course, the situation is much more complicated that many people understand. Gently woven throughout the current news is the idea that Somali piracy is an outgrowth of waterborne vigilantism, sparked by illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste in the waters off Somalia after the collapse of government there. A quick Google search turned up the fact that Somalia's government was outed by warlords in 1991, and an article in the New Scientist about concerns over the dumping of waste in 1992. NS is a subscription site, so I couldn't read the whole piece, but it seems that foreign companies were looking to make deals with warlords for permission to dump, and they weren't wasting any time.

By the start of 2005, the issue had poked its head into the news again, as the Indian Ocean Tsunami had deposited previously dumped waste on the Somali coastline, and some estimates put the haul from illegal fishing in Somali waters at $300,000,000.00 a year. The infant pirate operations made it into the American news with an attack on the Seabourn Spirit cruise liner, but since the crew drove the pirates off with water cannon and an acoustic device on the ship, American interest quickly faded again.

In Why Terrorism Does Not Work, Max Abrahms makes the point that people see the outcome of an attack as the purpose of an attack. This puts the Somalis in a bit of a bind. People reject the argument that the piracy is a response to the illegal fishing and waste dumping, seeing it (rightly or wrongly) as a self-serving rationalization for common brigandage. But the only attention that their claims of maritime injustice get at all nowadays is within the context of that piracy.

This is not to say that the international community SHOULD consider the root cause of the piracy to be the accusations of foreign fishing and dumping. To do so would remove the Somalis themselves as an active agent in their own activities. And even if these things had not occurred, piracy for ransom takes place in other parts of the world - the former pirate hot spot, the Strait of Malacca, has been largely forgotten recently, but it's not inactive - and it's not a stretch to imagine that a warlord could have hit upon the idea of piracy as a moneymaking venture, or simply to steal goods being shipped. And also ignores another important fact - the best way for Somalia to manage its coastline and fisheries is to have a functioning government that can do the job. Of course, that's going to come with issues of its own. The warlords are unlikely to take kindly to being shut out of power, while the international community is unlikely to accept any government that includes them, and foreign powers have shown a willingness to back efforts to destabilize governments they don't like.

But in the end, the piracy will persist, until it's no longer the most profitable (and not simply in terms of money) option. Simply setting out to make piracy unprofitable can be done - the French have shown a hard-nosed unwillingness to take any flack from the Somalis. If everyone acted in this way, it would likely nip the problem quickly - although some hostages would be killed in the bargain, and public opposition to that in some places will make a unified front unlikely. Or an effort could be made to stabilize the place long enough for a viable government to establish itself, and get the waters around Somalia under control, and keep out illegal fishing and dumping. I'm nor betting on that one, either. Yet. But the status quo won't work forever, and nothing is more constant than change. So we'll see what evolves out of this.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What's In a Name?

Many Asian-Americans have common English names that are different from their given names in their own languages. These "nicknames" as it were, often appear on driver's licenses and the like, creating a conflict with official records that use a transliterated version of the person's formal given name. This situation creates difficulties in voting, when ID doesn't match state databases, explained Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans, to Texas state Representative Betty Brown, during a hearing on a voter identification bill.

“Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Brown said.

Brown later told Ko: “Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”
It's a simple enough suggestion - that Asians drop difficult-for-Americans given names, and instead be officially identified by a common English name they chose. But it's also a pretty stupid suggestion, and it blew up in Brown's face. Which should surprise absolutely no-one. It seems that Brown didn't realize that she was effectively asking people to give up their birth names in the eyes of the government simply for the convenience of officials and poll workers.

Of course, she later apologized, via a prepared statement (natch), and (cue the spin in 3... 2... 1...) her spokesperson suggested that opponents of the voter ID provision were stirring up the teapot tempest to derail the bill in the face of overwhelming support for it.

Other takes on the controversy? Quoth the Onion: “Wouldn’t it just be easier to teach Texans how to read?”

(I'd give bonus points for guessing Representative Brown's party affiliation, but I suspect you've already guessed it.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Conflict of Commitments

In today's Slate, Emily Bazelon makes mention of the fact that the Obamas' new Portuguese Water Dog, is not, in fact, a shelter rescue. One of the lessons she takes away from this is:

Moving to Washington means that powerfully persuasive people take you on little jaunts away from your modest and principled intentions--jaunts that seem harmless, but exert a symbolic power of their own.

The fact that the Obamas did not get a dog from a shelter highlights the basic squeeze that they put themselves in throughout this process - committing both to a particular breed and to getting the dog from a shelter. This raised a simple question - what would they do if the breed they wanted wasn't available in a shelter? Much of the commentary on the Obamas' choice of canine pointed out the fact that the breeds they were looking at weren't likely to be found in shelters, but the issue was never really brought front and center. Which was appropriate - we, and the first family, have bigger problems to worry about.

But now, rather than worrying about the lessons this teaches or getting caught up in trivial criticisms (which are likely coming, and likely quite loudly), perhaps commentators would do us all the favor of pointing out that it's really very easy to make two pledges that will be really hard to abide by at once, and using this as a non-problematic way of pointing out some of the other areas in which we commit to things that wind up in conflict with each other.

An example (apropos of nothing) - commitments to both, say, working with international bodies and maintaining national sovereignty. There will be times when these ideas are in harmony, but since nothing links them, there will be times in which they are in conflict, and so priorities are going to have to be set, necessarily angering boosters of the lower priority.

Or, as another more personal example, committing to both invest in energy-saving technology, and to put more money in one's savings account.

There's nothing wrong with making such commitments, but it's also to be up front about which one takes a back seat, if push comes to shove. Otherwise you run the risk of reality making you appear to be a hypocrite. Or making you teach lessons you hadn't intended.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Gang of Five

So I had a few friends from the Island of Lost Toys stop by the apartment for a visit. It's interesting how old material items from your past trigger serious nostalgia attacks. These date back to 1989 - back before the Japanese started outsourcing their toys to China. (Remember when "Made in Japan" was considered to be the biggest threat to the American worker?)

I need to figure out what I want to do with these guys. It seems a shame to leave them in a shoebox for decades at a time.

For those of you that care, these are old Bandai Musha Gundam figures, from back in the day when there were only a handful of Gundams. From left to right, Gundam, Gundam Mk. II, Zeta Gundam (missing his crest), Gundam Double Zeta and Nu Gundam. Imagine sixty-foot tall robot war machines in samurai armor. The second photograph shows the Musha Gundam near a photograph of a more recent version of the same, so you can see what its actual color scheme should look like, instead of pink plastic.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lilliputians At Sea

A really well done and odd entrancing video, hosted on Vimeo, shot with Perspective Control lenses, which is what gives it the look of the worlds most hyper-detailed stop-motion movie. I'm suddenly tempted to go out and pick up a D90, a PC lens, and play for a bit.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I'm Not So Sure

So between reruns of More Extreme Marksmen on Sunday night, the History Channel runs a show about Bernie Madoff and then one on the overall economic collapse. They were interesting enough, but I came away with a general feeling that the next thing that I needed to do was go and verify what they'd presented.

No, this isn't because they screwed up the Sears Tower thing - rather, it was because they started off my saying that Madoff had swindled people out of some 65 billion dollars. To get this figure, people have calculated the money that people would have received, had Madoff actually delivered on the returns he promised. But, economists have said that this isn't an accurate or appropriate way to determine the damage. They also ran interview footage from an author whose only claim to any expertise seemed to be that he was writing a book on Madoff that hadn't been published yet. No other credentials were presented.

The purpose of informational media is to tell you things you don't already know - otherwise, while it might be really interesting, it's really no different from entertainment media. To that end, you have to have a certain amount of confidence that the information that's being presented is accurate. Otherwise, what's the point?

Friday, April 3, 2009


The Global Economic Crisis has triggered another G20 summit that resulted in a "communique" that, like most of the statements that come out of meetings like this, doesn't say much of anything worthwhile.

This is only to be expected from any sort of international meeting. After all, everyone wants to feel that they're important on the world stage, and that they have to be listened to. And this can lead to some remarkable displays of pettiness, considering that these are the people who allegedly run the planet. But the most common effect is something bland enough that it offends no-one, and puts no one on the hook for anything that they don't feel is in their direct interests.

Of course, no one expects anything other than that, and so it's something of a surprise that these events garner as much news coverage as they do...