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.