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.