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.