Wednesday, December 29, 2010

And Then, There Were None

One of the things that we tend to talk about a lot in the modern United States is the idea of Courage. And, I think, to a certain degree, we over-use the term, applying it in situations where it might not actually apply.

Well, here's a situation in which it definitely does. Erika Gandara was the sole remaining police officer in the town of Guadalupe, near the border with the United States. Narco-traffickers had killed or intimidated the rest of the police force, leaving Gandara to patrol the town alone.

And then, the cartels came for her. Her home was burned to the ground, and she was abducted. Likely never to be seen again. It's more or less a certainty that Officer Gandara expected that something would happen to her, if she stayed on the job without support. But she did so anyway. I have a hard time imagining what that must have been like, knowing that powerful people have marked you for death, and continuing to do the job, day after day.

I know it seems somehow pat or even trivial to say this, but that's courage. I don't know that I could do the same.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Robo Rumble

You know, I got a kick out of Rock'em Sock'em Robots when I was a kid. But I never recalled saying to myself, "Hey! They should make a movie out of this!"

But apparently, somebody was thinking just that...



Here's hoping that this movie has got some serious mechanized eye candy going for it, because it seems kind of silly right out of the gate. But then again, it's good that not every movie needs to be the pinnacle of the filmmaker's art. Sometime, it just feels good to let your brain take a rest and nosh on popcorn.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

That Time of Year Again

If you watch enough History Channel, Science Channel, National Geographic and or History International around the holidays (mainly Christmas and Easter) you're likely to stumble across at least a couple of shows aimed at examining the possible historical facts around Biblical events. These always struck me as interesting, not so much for their content, but for the idea of them. In a very real way, knowledge obviates faith to the degree that you don't need to believe in things unseen once you can actually see them. Now, it's unlikely that the History Channel will ever manage to score an exclusive interview with God, or get an Angel on film. So the big aspects of faith are safe from the media machine.

But I have always been fascinated by the work (and the contortions) that people are willing to put into searching for concrete evidence of the truth of human legends and stories. I'm a bit disappointed that myths and legends outside of Judeo-Christian canon are generally unexplored, however, unless the Ancient Aliens crowd is involved, or they're taken as corroborating evidence of something in the Bible.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Nary A Problem

Yesterday, I hauled out my camera gear, and went downtown to take some pictures. Sunny days in the winter are somewhat uncommon around here, so it's best to make the most of them. I'm not a particularly inventive photographer, so I didn't get anything particularly artistic.

But I wasn't hassled by anyone either. As the morning went on, the Christmas shoppers came out in force, and before long there were crowds of people in the usual places. And there I was, snapping away with my SLR. No one seemed to care. Well, that's not entirely true. I had been trying to get the exposure right on this sidewalk tree that had been decorated with lights, when this woman walked up with a shopping bag, glaring at me, and trying to shield her face from the camera with her hand. I glowered back, and waited for her to clear my shot. But there was no official harassment - no questioning or confrontations from police officers or security guards. When I finally got around to hustling it back to my car, it was because I don't like leaving it alone for long periods of time in the city - living in an area with (relatively) high auto-crimes rates does that to you, I guess.

It's easy to forget, when we're surrounded by anecdotes detailing official over-reactions to the presence of a camera, that most people are well aware of the fact that "Photographers are not Terrorists." This doesn't mean that we shouldn't be any less aware of that ourselves, and prepared to stand up for it if required (among other things), but it's nice to remember that we don't actually live in a police state, or even a reasonable facsimile of one, just yet.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Best. Comic Book. Ever.

No, really. There aren't any better comic books than this.Hmm... I suspected that most people in the comic-book business were lefties...

As much as I am an occasional comic-book geek, I never actually saw this one on the shelves last year - I suspect that I would have picked it up if I did, just to see how they ended the fight. Hopefully, the President uses better form in the actual throw-down; as it is, the Screeching Enchantress (I wonder who that could be...) is about to shish-kebab him. And of course, the rest of the opposition puts in an appearance. Red Sarah, anyone?

Tip of the hat to Digg, for turning me on to this and some other illustrated portrayals of the President that give whole new meaning to "just plain wrong."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Change of Plans

So I was planning to have a big New Year's Eve party on December 31st 2012, just to thumb my nose in the Mayans' (and Nostradamus') faces. But it looks like that might not be necessary. Turns out that someone has managed to track down definitive proof that the world will NOT end in December of 2012.

Yep. It will end in May of 2011. Guaranteed. Who knew?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

For Starters...

Step one of the plan to be more positive: stop reading the newspaper. Yeesh. You'd think nothing good ever happened in the world.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A New Leaf

I'm not a fan of Christmas. From the eggnog lattes that begin showing up in the middle of October through the lies and distortions (and silliness) needed to keep the annual "War on Christmas" alive and well to the constant land, sea and air advertising blitzkrieg, the season gets on my nerves. (This is becoming another "Things I Hate" piece, isn't it? I should just add that as a category.)

But I work at not getting too down on the way people go about their holiday celebrations. And yes, sometimes, I need to do a much better job of it. I went back and re-read one of my old posts on the subject, and was dismayed at the level of snark and condescension that I brought to it. It's not like I'm the Best Person in the World, either. But the worst thing about it, was that I had become so caught up in being Less Consumerist Than They that I quickly forgot about what should have been the central thesis if the post - that our Christmas season had gotten so out of hand that a man had been trampled to death and two others had been shot. Instead, I feel that I came off as using what happened to them as a platform for mocking the responses that Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us had made.

I am reminded of all of this due to having found this in the wilds of the Internet:
The "Limit one trampled customer per store," is what did it for me. Christian (or any other religious sort) sanctimony is nothing new. Westboro Baptist Church has virtually made it into a business. (Say what you will about them - and I suppose most of it would be negative - but they have managed to turn a constant stream of spite into a national spotlight.) I get the whole "Can't you see how broken and empty your life is?" pitch, even though I can't understand why anyone would expect to gain converts from it. Seth Godin nailed it when he pointed out that putting people in a position where their choices are: a) think less of you or b) think less of themselves is rarely a winning strategy. But the trampling reference seemed to take it a step beyond that - to use people's deaths as a platform for mocking those "less Christian" than themselves. (Sometimes, it takes encountering a jackass to show you that you've been a jackass.)

It's easy to build a high horse out of condescension and scorn, without regard to very real people that we wind up using in the process. Perhaps this is why there is so much negativity in the world. It's been just about four years since I started this weblog - and I think for much of that time, I've been working through my own anxieties, troubles and worries in a forum that's not supposed to be about me. (Of course, since I'm the author, Nobody in Particular is ALL about me. Who else would it be about?)

My last New Year's Resolution ended badly. (It was to become more politically involved - I should have known better from the outset.) But I think that I should spend more of my time focusing on the positive things that go on around me - or at least set aside the constant complaining. Let's see how long I last.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Eight Years

As I type this, a group of protesters is marking the eighth anniversary of the start of their weekly protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military-industrial complex in general.

Every week, they get together at a busy intersection and hold signs, wave flags and make their presence known. I don't get down there every week, but I've never known them to miss one. This motivates them and they've developed a sense of community to accompany their sense of purpose. More power to them. The place will feel empty and alone once they're gone, even though it will still be a busy intersection.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Encouragement

Senator Jim DeMint (R - South Carolina) has come out against the tax cut deal that President Obama has worked out with the Republican leadership. One of his main reasons for this stance, the fact that it will increase the budget deficit makes perfect sense. But some of his reasoning is a little dubious.

I don’t think we need to extend unemployment any further without paying for it, and without making some modifications such as turning it into a loan at some point. It then encourages people to go back to work.
This is one of the common Republican objections to extending unemployment - that my making it less painful to be out of work, the incentive to do whatever it takes to get a job is lessened. But unless Senator DeMint is hoping that some people (Democratic voters, more than likely) simply leave the country entirely in their quest for jobs, one wonders just what exactly the incentive of looming poverty is expected to accomplish.

In "Read This Shirt" in the July 24th-30th issue of The Economist, which deals with the fight over unemployment benefits in Congress, a chart is presented that shows that as of the end of the first quarter of 2010, there were just shy of 5 unemployed people per job opening. (But I'm not sure if this is being measured against the official unemployment rate - other statistics in the article are - or against the overall number of workforce-eligible but unemployed persons.) What proponents of the "unemployment benefits cause malingering" philosophy never seem to get around to answering is why they expect that ending unemployment benefits - or reforming them into loans that must be repaid - would reduce the ratio of unemployed people to job openings. According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Fransisco, about 5% of the officially unemployed (the unemployment rate was about 10% at the time) were taking it easy because of access to unemployment benefits.

If we work under the assumption that none of the job openings identified in the Bureau of Labor Statistics data mentioned in the Economist article are due to the inability to find qualified candidates, it might be worthwhile to presume that you could reduce the number of open positions to 0 by cutting off access to other means of support for the unemployed. But that would still leave more than 75% of unemployed people high and dry.

I may have mentioned this before when writing about this topic, but I have yet to encounter anyone who disputes the BLS numbers. So either Senator DeMint is willing to punish the majority of the unemployed to lever those that can find work to to do whatever it takes to get what jobs are out there, or he knows something that the rest of us don't. The only thing that comes to mind off the top of my head is that businesses are holding jobs back, due to wage rates being too high for their liking. Once the oversupply of labor pushes people into being willing to work for mush less than they would otherwise, employers will unveil these jobs, and offer them to the public. It is, essentially, a game of chicken, with the wealthy betting that they can wait out the public with the help of conservative lawmakers who begrudge the populace any policies or conditions that work against a factory-friendly business environment.

It's possible that Senator DeMint honestly believes that a factory-style business environment, where the public serves mainly as a labor force for businesses that charitably allow people to work for them, is the single best exemplar of Capitalism and the best thing for modern Democracy. I suppose it beats thinking that he's a cynical bastard who is deliberately playing out an active prejudice against the poor and middle-class. But sooner or later, we need to pin him, and his allies, down on just what they plan to do to increase the number of available jobs out there to be had, rather than simply resting on the idea that the public is lazy and needs to be whipped into shape.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

And Now, For a Moment of WTF?

"Unicoi County, Tennessee, has 17,700 people, and it hasn’t had a reported murder in six years. Its SWAT team recently acquired an armored personnel vehicle."
Radley Balko, The Case of Cory Maye.
At the risk of sounding soft on crime, and therefore adding to the long list of things that I've said that pretty much ensure my perpetual ineligibility for any sort of elective office, isn't an APV a bit of overkill (not that the SWAT team itself isn't a bit of overkill) for a county with a population smaller than that of some college campuses, and with an enviable violent crime rate?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Barbie Can See You Now

The story about how the FBI has become concerned that the new Barbie Video Girl doll could be used as an "unconventional avenue" for creating child pornography has been floating around for a bit now, but it still becomes just a little bit funnier every time I read it.

I suspect that BBC staffers laughed themselves silly when the news first made it across the pond. I'm not going to make the obvious wisecrack about how the FBI, of all people, should have more important things on their mind than worrying about weirdos with Barbie dolls. Mainly because the sexual exploitation of children is a fairly serious topic. But what I don't get is just what is it about the Barbie camera that you couldn't do with any other camera that might appeal to children; and that's where the whole flap begins to veer into the comedic.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Growing Up

"But I am saying that Bowles, Simpson, and everyone else involved in the 'adult conversation' are going to have to sell it by convincing people that, for them personally, there's an upside as at least as much as a downside to reducing the deficit."
Stan Collender, Attention Bowles And Simpson: You've Got To Talk About More Than The Pain
With all due respect to Mr. Collender, the constant quest for personal upsides is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place. The whole reason why the deficit reduction conversation is happening is a dawning realization that the steady parade of "tax cuts, prescription drug coverage for Medicare, contracts from the government, corporate subsidies, and research grants" funded by borrowing from overseas creditors can't go on forever, if for no other reason that eventually the accumulated interest will demolish our ability to keep even basic functions running.

But I understand the political reality that he's referencing, and it's a bleak one. The American public, taken as a whole, is simply too short-sighted to understand that a (reasonably) soft landing now or in the near future is substantially better than a (potentially catastrophic) hard landing later - especially when there are people out there willing to sell us the idea that the hard landing will magically never come. Just the other day, I heard someone tell the BBC that the Bowles - Simpson plan was bad medicine because it didn't take into account future economic growth that would substantially increase tax revenues, as if this wonderful period of expansion were a guarantee graven in stone.

The "adult conversation" that we're looking for can't be predicated on the idea that we're entitled to a certain standard of living, regardless of our collective ability to fund it. But for right now, it seems it will be, simply because that's what get's people elected. According to Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois: "The Bowles-Simpson plan further erodes the middle class and threatens low-income Americans." But I fail to understand how letting the status quo continue until financial reality runs it down shores up the middle class and removes threats to low-income Americans. If these groups are, in effect, reliant on government handouts to support themselves, what will they do when taxes are increased and services cut back? Even if the United States simply walks away from its debts, spending will still have to plunge to match receipts. It seems unlikely that the poor and middle-class will still be able to rely on government programs in such an event. Given this, it simply doesn't seem reasonable to set any sort of direct personal benefit as the price of agreeing to no longer live beyond our (collective) means. Allowing the discussion to be sidetracked into what payoffs are going to be required to end the current payoffs will do nothing but indulge a childish impulse that threatens to reduce the United States to a destitute shell. So, if anything, the "adult conversation" that Bowles and Simpson want to have is imperiled just as much by a lack of other adults to converse with, as anything else.

Perhaps this is the real reason Why Fixing the Budget Is Hopeless, even if it must be admitted that the average person's complete lack of understanding of it plays a major role...

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Required Reading

Bruce Schneier has penned an excellent essay on being straight with ourselves about terrorism. It's a must-read for anyone who thinks that effective security and security theater are two different beasts. While it might be true that a pleasant falsehood is more palatable than an inconvenient truth, those of us that are ready, willing and able to deal with reality, need to do a better job of making ourselves heard.

P.S.: Turns out that this is the six-hundred and sixty-sixth post. I wonder if it's possessed...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Boo! Again.

I found an article in The Atlantic online about one last "low-grade game of nuclear blackmail" by the Libyan government in 2009. The idea was that the last of Libya's nuclear materials was supposed to be flown out of the country to Russia, but at the last minute, the Libyans refused to allow it to leave the country.

[Libya] left the seven five-ton casks [of highly enriched uranium] out in the open and under light guard, vulnerable to theft by the al-Qaeda factions that still operate in the region or by any rogue government that learned of their presence.
Later in the article, the author notes:
It would have been easy for anyone with a gun and a truck to drive up, overpower the guard, use the crane to load the casks onto the truck, and drive off into the vast Libyan desert.
Makes sense so far. Next up is a description of Libya's demands. After this we're told:
The Russian engineers busied themselves with finding a way to secure the uranium, something that required them to "develop entirely new technology" on the fly, as a U.S. official wrote. Faced with an unprecedented problem--nuclear material abandoned in temporary casks that could not be moved --they set out to improvise a solution. The uranium had to be removed from the casks but was far too radioactive to be handled by humans. The engineers settled on a remote-controlled device that they hoped could safely extract the uranium and move it to the Tajoura facility's built-in ponds, where it would be better contained. The so-called grapple would have been the first of its kind. They even planned to train Tajoura's Libyan engineers in the grapple's use. Department of Energy officials in Libya called it "an unprecedented operation."
Now I'm confused. The Russians have to "develop entirely new technology" to mount "an unprecedented operation" just to put material "far too radioactive to be handled by humans" back into the same facility it had just come out of, but all al-Qaeda has to do to steal it is drive up in a truck? Really? I'm not sure that I believe that for a moment. I get the idea that jihadis aren't terribly concerned with their own safety, but the point behind suicide bombing is to die when the bomb goes off - not while you're attempting to get the materials for it. The idea that al-Qaeda has the NBC-handling capacity to deal with highly radioactive materials seems to be something of a stretch.

This article seems like a scare piece, designed to remind us of why we still need to be hyper-vigilant about what people in other countries that don't look like us, and don't automatically take our word that we're "the good guys" at face value, are doing. The United States is the world's foremost military power. And Russia's no slouch, either. I find it difficult to believe that between the two nations, we couldn't have managed to scare up a hundred guys to keep an eye on that material, and make sure nothing happened to it. What really would the Libyans have done about it? Complained to the United Nations?

The article tells us that "Owing to the sensitive nature of nuclear counterproliferation, a number of technical details have been omitted from this account[...]." Some of those details seem to be important, as the story as written doesn't always square with itself. It's implied that the Libyans were counting on the United States thinking that terrorists might steal the material, in order to give them leverage - but how would they have done that if the "casks could not be moved?" Nothing is said about the Libyans demanding that the casks sit exactly where they were - and if they didn't want the material to move, it wouldn't have made any sense for the Russians to go through the effort of planning their "unprecedented operation," to take the material out of the casks. So the casks must have been effectively immobile for a reason other than Libyan insistence. Again, this leads back to the idea that this incident might not be all it's cracked up to be.
The month-long crisis, never revealed by the Obama administration or reported in the press, is recorded in U.S. State Department documents obtained by The Atlantic. Those documents tell the story of frantic diplomatic maneuvering as U.S. and Russian officials pushed Libyan leaders to honor their disarmament pledge. A person with access to the cables provided them to The Atlantic in order to publicize the dangers of loose nuclear materials under the control of unpredictable regimes in unstable countries.
Looks like there are still neocons in the administration, after all. And people in the press willing to do their dirty work for them.

A Matter of Trust

Videos, like this one featured in Megan McArdle's webblog, are problematic as evidence of anything. Because of the lack of sound, you don't really know what is going on - there's nothing that you can use to verify what the captions tell you is happening.

But in a lot of ways, that's completely beside the point. This video points to a bigger problem - the idea that Transportation Security Administration workers can quickly become tin-plated tyrants, willing to punish people for simply standing up for the rights and privileges that they are supposed to have. Even if you assume that this video is more a less a complete fabrication, and/or deliberately taken out of context by some rabble-rousing terrorist sympathizer, the fact that the media is taking it seriously, and wanting more information is indicative of the greater issue that we're having with our security apparatus.

Security works on trust. That's just the nature of the beast. So, the TSA, unsurprisingly says, "Trust us." But there are segments of the population that are wary of doing so for its own sake. They ask, "How do we know we can trust you?" The problem arises when the perceived answer is "I don't recall phrasing that as a request."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Misanthropy

Back when I was in college, a bunch of us would occasionally sit around and waste time on various incarnations of "what if?" It took many forms, but would sometimes actually be simply "What if this happened? What would you do?" Depending on who was present, the overall themes would vary; one day, it was very science-fiction laden and the following question was posed:

Aliens are attacking the Earth, and have made it clear that they plan to exterminate the whole of the human species. You have the ability to communicate with them. What would you do?
I was feeling somewhat cranky that evening, and so my answer was simply: "Ask if they're still accepting applications." It was good for a laugh.

The impulse to see the entire human race wiped out is, I think, what happens in those rare moments when one is, for better or (likely) worse, cynical enough to keep up. In a lot of ways, it's the dark side of serenity - resignation mixed with more than a little contempt. The difficult thing about it is that people feed it without knowing it - I'm sure that I've done more than my share of pushing people into wishing for the destruction of the species, even if I couldn't actually tell you about a single episode.

Being okay with who we are as individuals is work enough on its own - being okay with who we are as the entire mass of humanity usually requires living under one of the few rocks that still lacks cable and high-speed Internet access. (I heard a Buddhist remark that he's heartened by the fact the news is so dominated by the nasty things we do unto each other, as the fact that we considered them newsworthy meant that we considered them unusual. I gave him top marks for creativity.) But that, of course, is something of a cop-out. Which brings me back to the dark side of serenity. Understanding that there are things you can't change can bring wonderful peace of mind. But it can also become a convenient cover for apathy - or, perhaps more accurately, learned helplessness.

Setting out to change the world is, to be blunt, a fool's errand. But if dreams come true, then one might as well dream big. And it beats signing on with an alien armada.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Choices

"If you have two planes getting ready to depart and one, you say, everybody has been thoroughly screened on this plane, and you can either go on that plane or another plane where we have not done a thorough screening because people did not feel comfortable with that, I think most if not all of the traveling public will say, 'I want to go on that plane that has been thoroughly screened.' "
TSA Administrator John Pistole
I think I'll take the unscreened plane. If Pistole is wrong, I get to be on a plane full of people who don't go for the whole "security theater" thing. If he's right, I get a plane all to myself. Either way, however, I doubt it does much for my chances of being killed in a terrorist incident.

Lost In The Myth

Today is Thanksgiving Day, 2010. Back before the holiday became little more than the day of rest before the craziness that is the first official day of the Christmas shopping season, it was well, Thanksgiving. Original settlers from England held a feast to give thanks to God for the fact that they were still alive; it became a tradition, and eventually, it was made into a national holiday.

But despite the fact that there is a large part of the mythology of Thanksgiving devoted to the cooperation between the settlers and the Native Americans, and how the "Indians" were so instrumental in the survival of the colonists, it really seems to me that somewhere along the way, the natives have been forgotten. Of the six traditional continents that have nation-states on them, three of them have nations that come across as being by, for and of people who are native to the areas that they inhabit. North America is not one of them. The Native American population in the United States (I can't speak to Canada or Mexico, so I won't.) seems to be really marginal. Of all of the people that I've met that claim connection to the native population, all but one seemed to fall back on, in one way or another the One Drop Rule - they're 1/8th Cherokee or 3/64ths Blackfoot. Being some small amount Native American has become a mark of honor in some way - or a ticket to a slice of casino money; I'm not sure which. But these are people who don't live on reservations, out in the middle of nowhere on often marginal land, segregated from the mainstream of national society.

I don't know if I actually care more about the Native American population today than I did a week ago. Something tells me that I'm just fed up with the basic falsity of the mythology of the modern Thanksgiving holiday, and recalling the natives allows me to feel like less of an accessory after the fact.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Let It Snow


Believe it or not, the snow isn't really the problem. As the temperature continues to drop, the roads are icing over, and pretty badly - there have already been fatalities from traffic accidents. But overall conditions are wildly variable... In any event it's going to be a long lead-up until the Thanksgiving holiday, when things are expected to warm up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Good Stuff on the Web

Okay, bear with me for a minute.

One of the annoying things about the Internet is that you can always find something that hacks you off. I seem to have spent a pretty good amount of the last four years cataloging things on the World Wide Web that get on my nerves.

So it's cool to find some of the fun and unusual stuff that the Internet has to offer. This outfit called xtranormal has created a site at which you can make your own cartoons. It's nothing super-spectactular, but it is pretty fun, and some people have taken it in some pretty interesting directions. Which is where Ursula Hitler comes in. (I did ask that you bear with me.) "Inside Ursula Hitler's Head," is a funny send up of the old Fox show Herman's Head from back in the 90's. The basic premise is this - there are two people, Mr. Meanie and Sweetie, who live inside of Ursula's mind, and at the same time, inhabit the universe created by the xtranormal software. Craziness ensues. It's actually REALLY funny (well, at least I think so), much funnier than I can make it sound here. (The variations on Jesus H. Christ alone are worth the price of admission.) It's not for everybody, but if the initial episodes strike you as humorous, it's an excellent time-waster on a lazy afternoon.

It sure beats the trolls, griefers and pundits that normally inhabit the web.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Questions and Elections

Republicans delighted in telling us, once the election results were in, that the American public was united in its repudiation of President Obama and the Democratic agenda. I seem to remember a similar tune being sung by other voice back in 2008...

But anyone with half the sense that was given a cabbage knows better than this. The Democrats took a drumming because they came to power during a crisis. This election cycle, the public had two questions for the Administration and Congress.

  1. Are we there yet?
  2. Can we see it from here?
Presidential and Congressional rhetoric aside, the answer to both of those questions was pretty clearly "no," to anyone who a) was a partisan for the other side or b) wasn't all that partisan. Despite their renewed hopes of the mythical Permanent Republican Majority, the GOP is going to have to answer those same two questions in 2012. They'd better be prepared to have better answers.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The End

What if America just fails? I mean, now, at this time. What if we can't solve the deficit issues, and the United States goes into default on its debts, both foreign and domestic? What if we can't maintain our economy, and we wind up hurting for resources because we can't afford to pay what other countries can? What if we start one war too many, and out military apparatus becomes hopelessly damaged? What if the divisions between citizens coalesce enough along geographical lines that the dissolution of the Union becomes realistic and workable, either peacefully, or through another civil war? We all know that nothing is going to last forever. Despite the attachment that Americans have to feeling on top, sooner or later, that's not going to be the case anymore. We're going to start sliding down the totem pole, and someone else will be on top. (I wonder if the English, for instance, take solace in the idea that we stood on their shoulders to get where we are?)

The idea that the United States will eventually no longer be #1 seems to fill the entire nation with a terror that chills us to the bone. I wonder if part of it isn't the realization that the new #1 might be in a position to do unto us, as we have done onto others. Or if it's the fact that the United States is a uniquely blended place - will our fall from the summit mean that the Melting Pot wasn't such a good idea after all? Maybe we've simply invested too heavily of ourselves. It's hard to watch something founder when you can no longer easily draw the line between it and yourself.

But its coming - perhaps sooner than we think. We've been able to put off out problems for decades now, but eventually, the issue is forced, and one has to find a solution. What happens if we don't? Will we be ready? Or will the inevitable take us willfully unawares?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Problem

It is said that in order to solve a problem, that you have to acknowledge that there is a problem.

So what if your problem is that you're unwilling to ever admit that you might have a problem?

One wonders what the world would be like, were it not for this little catch-22.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Clues

Sometimes, you can learn more about something from what isn't said, than from what is. Take this apparent missile launch about 35 miles from Los Angeles. The fact that the military is keeping quiet about this, and the Navy is saying it's not their missile - means it's likely an Air Force missile (or, the Navy is lying, and it is theirs). How do we know this? Because there isn't a massive terrorist related freak-out going on.

There is no way on Earth that a missile, large enough to potentially be an ICBM or orbital rocket, launched from within 40 miles of one of the most populated cities in the United States by a truly unknown party wouldn't have put the Pentagon and entire anti-terrorism establishment into hyperdrive. The alert level would be "Double Ultra-secret Mega-Red," and there'd be fighter aircraft, warships and orbital particle beam weapons being deployed to the area from anywhere they could be spared.

When some random choad who's been suckered by the FBI into thinking he's a Jihadi sparks breathless news conferences, a missile that barely draws a yawn HAS to be one of ours.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rainbow

It's going to be all right.
30 seconds of panic, 4 minutes of cold and wet, then a moment of awesome.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Property Of...

I was reading about the Pope's trip to Spain, and the opposition to same, and a thought occurred to me. "You're going to have to change the message, Your Holiness."

I understand where the Pontiff is coming from. I grew up Roman Catholic, and still have a fair idea of Church dogma, theology and ideals. But I'm also an observer of people, and one of things that I've learned is that for the vast majority of people, membership in a particular religion fulfills something for them. And if it stops fulfilling that, they go on to something else (or maybe nothing else, as the case may be).

Now, I didn't listen to the Pope's sermon in Barcelona, so I'm pretty sure that I don't have the context 100% correct. (I should likely do something about that - find a translation, at least, given that I don't speak Spanish at all.) But the primary message that I understood from those of his comments that I have read was that he is dismayed that people are living up to their responsibilities to God and the Church. Which is fine. But if he's going to do more than preach to the choir, sooner or later, he's going to have to articulate what following the Church is going to do for the people who follow. It's fine to consider homosexual activity "intrinsically disordered." But if you're going to ask someone to either a) enter into a permanent relationship with someone that they feel no attraction to or b) remain celibate for their entire lives for something that they feel they have no control over, you're better off offering something in return outside of simply not going to Hell. (There are times when people make God/Yahweh/Allah out to be less of a loving divinity, and more of a supernatural mobster running a protection racket.) The same with things like divorce and abortion. Simply saying this is what you're supposed to do, regardless of the personal consequences, has rarely been a winning strategy.

Simply decrying people's rejection of God's "property interest" in them reduces them to pawns to moved around as befits God's purposes. For people that find this unsatisfactory, simply telling them that they have no choice is unlikely to be compelling.

Let Me Rephrase That

Ah, the dangers of the common way of doing things...

"After the jump" is common internet lingo to refer to that part of an article or blog posting that's initially hidden from the reader. You read the first part, and click on a "more" link, or something similar to get the rest of the text.

But yes, that is an unfortunate choice of words when writing about a suicidal woman on the ledge of building, as the Seattle Weekly's Daily Weekly webblog was reminded by its readers.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

The choice to fact-check vigorously, even when a story is reported by well-funded news outlets, seems only to happen when the writers in question disagree with the story, while the decision to accept the fact-checking of any traditional media outlet, in order to be able to fast-forward to the aforementioned high dudgeon, seems to come when the weblogger likes repeating or even amplifying the claims made further upstream.
Clay Shirky

All too often the truth is often secondary to what people want to hear and what they want to enjoy getting worked up about, whether it's in a sexual or righteous way. Information finds its level and its target.
Yoz Grahame
"Banning blogging, 'Toothing, and Yoz" Many2Many, 5 April 2005
As you might suspect, when I heard about conservative politicians and media outlets uncritically repeating that the Obama administration was spending more per diem on the President's trip to India than it costs to prosecute the war in Afghanistan, and were renting out more rooms in the Taj Mahal Palace hotel than are actually in the building, this was the first thing that came to my mind.

This idea, that there is nothing too outrageous to believe and/or repeat about people you don't like, is dangerous. (On the other hand, the Obama administration isn't doing themselves any favors in treating the overall cost of the trip as a state secret.) As we become more and more caught up in the idea that politics and morality are related, we inch ever closer to the idea (although I suspect that we're already there to a degree) that there is an objectively "correct" political position to be taken on any given subject. And what follows from that is the idea that dissent from that position is an act of intentional wrongdoing. "Evil," to be blunt about it.

And fights against Evil always end in bloodshed.

Do You Believe

When someone tells me: "The media is liberal," my first thought tends to be: "Wow. Figured that out by yourself, did you?" Not because I buy into the idea that "the media" as an institution, has this deep liberal agenda that it's attempting to advance, but because for the most part, the people who go into journalism feel that they doing a service for the public and it's a line of work that doesn't pay particularly well, except at élite levels. Sounds just like the kind of career that draws young conservatives in droves.

The idea that certain careers have a given political bent more or less as a characteristic became clear to me back when I was working with children. Child care/social work, as you might have guessed, is also a very liberal line of work, perhaps even more so than journalism, given that it's very much rooted in the public and/or non-profit sectors.

As is often the case, groups of like-minded people start to fall into an orthodoxy, and woe betide you if you aren't with the program. And one of the more strident bits of orthodox thinking that everyone was expected to adhere to back in my child care worker days was "weapons are bad." This lead to more than a few disagreements about things. I made the mistake of expressing my skepticism about a television portrayal of the dangerousness of weapons, and wound up having to defend a position that television programs should value accuracy over promoting "social responsibility." Another time, I became embroiled in a particularly heated argument with a co-worker because I couldn't see the pressing need for the immediate destruction of every nuclear weapon on the planet. (She told me that I was "unfit to work with children" as a result of this position.)

Of course, children don't always buy into the groupthink, regardless of what the staff thinks about it - they have an entirely different set of concerns. (Surprising, I know.) Most of them have loss, abandonment and protection issues that rate much more highly for them than esoteric concerns about public safety or world peace. One of the children I worked with bumped into this dichotomy when we were preparing for a group outing to the park. There was a new staffer along, and she'd started quizzing him to test his commitment.

"If we're at the park," she asked, earnestly, "and someone tries to snatch me, would you shoot them?"

"I don't believe in guns," the staffer answered, seeming to (in my estimation) miss the basic point of the question.

The response was immediate and sincere. "They're real."

This, of course, triggered everyone else within earshot to crack up. There is nothing that's funny in quite the same way as a child stating the obvious. Especially when they do so in a way that cuts through some of the BS that we in the "adult" world tend to wrap everything in. Sometimes I think that we should be just as up front about things. We could all use the laugh. And, perhaps, the lesson that there are more important things in life than orthodoxy.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Service

Good customer service is the fine art of not rubbing in the fact that any single transaction is, in fact, unimportant to your business. We all know that, especially for large corporations, that if you take your business elsewhere, unless you can get a very large number of people to do the same, no one will ever notice. There's no real way that any one transaction with a single private citizen can be important.

Its the companies that allow you to forget that, that are the ones you enjoy doing business with.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Keep Waiting

As everyone familiar with Peanuts is aware, every year, Linus waits in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin, who flies overhead and delivers toys for all of the children. But this year, cartoonist Bob Gorrell has a slightly more political take on young Mister Van Pelt's annual vigil...

And so I still wait here for the Great Pumpkin, who will bring me a candidate who puts what's good for the country ahead of his own re-election...
One of the things about political cartooning that I've never been able to work out for myself is which is better - clarity or ambiguity? I find this particular cartoon to be somewhat ambiguous, because I don't know how sympathetic the character of Linus, in his representation of the general public, is supposed to be. In Peanuts, Linus is well-intentioned, but deluded. He doesn't understand that there is no such thing as the Great Pumpkin.

But here, the fact that the Great Pumpkin is a figment of the imagination isn't the problem - Linus' wish is, on a certain level, directly antithetical to Democracy. (I also find it to be a bit elitist, which leads me to believe that Gorrell, an avowed conservative, might be referring to the more liberal side of the electorate, rather than the citizenry as a whole.) The sort of "political courage" that Gorrell's Linus is wishing for is the Holy Grail of minority politics - a politician who is more invested "in doing the right thing," than in representing the wishes of the majority of their constituents. And, of course, it's only considered political courage by such a grateful minority - to the majority that's going to squash the politician's hopes of re-election, it's "ignoring the will of the people," or some other such sin against populism. (The Obama administration's health care initiative, which Mr. Gorrell is clearly opposed to, seems to be a pretty obvious example to call upon here.)

But even if we take Linus at his word - that he wants a politician to whom doing right by the nation is more important that winning re-election - if a politician has to choose between acting in the best interests of the public and acting in accordance with the public's wishes, there's a problem there - and it's not with the politician. Were any manager or supervisor to fire an employee specifically for doing what they had been hired to do, rather than making the manager or supervisor happy, the general consensus would be that the corporate culture was unbelievably broken, and that the company was surely headed for trouble. But we don't seem to perceive that same problem in ourselves.

It's worth keeping in mind two facts. One: The majority of the public always believes that whatever it wants is, more or less by definition, what is good for the country. Two: Legislation that is vigorously enough opposed by the public will be repealed, ignored or otherwise invalidated. Taking these two things together leads to (in my not particularly humble opinion) the following conclusion: Any political movement based on doing what is good for the country in the face of a majority opinion to the contrary is doomed to fail.

So I suspect that Gorrell is using Linus to stand in for the sort of electoral wishful thinking that most people understand to be fatuous, at best, and deliberately disingenuous (if not dishonest) at worst. In which case, Linus (whether you regard him as a stand-in for liberalism or the entire American electorate) is going to be in that pumpkin patch a very long time.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

I Got a Rock

Am I the only person who was perpetually confused of just what it was that Charlie Brown had done to earn the enmity of all of the adults in his neighborhood? The kids would go out trick-or-treating and poor Charlie Brown would come home with a bag full of stones, even while the other children with him got some pretty good loot.

"I got a popcorn ball!"
"I got a steak dinner!"
"I got 25 shares of Google stock!"
"I got a Gold Eagle!"
"I got a rock..."
Although Charlie Brown's travails did lead one artist to remix his voice saying "I got a rock" over a techno beat. It was pretty cool. But I never got the artists name or the title of the song, and have been searching for it for some time now. So I've had to console myself with repeated viewings of "Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown."

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dreams on Wings


So... if Boeing uses a modified 747 to transport large sections of the 787 Dreamliner - what do they use to transport large sections of 747s?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Feelings

But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.
Juan Williams

Certain minority groups [are] disproportionally represented in prison because they have a crime problem.
Washington State Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders
I wonder if there is a growing hostility - an "us versus them" mentality that is coming out in the way that we speak about one another. Despite Juan Williams telling Bill O'Reilly that we shouldn't think of all Muslims as terrorists, the statement that cost him his NPR job seems to imply that fear of anyone who identifies as Muslim is warranted. Justice Sanders says that certain minorities are, in effect, unable to follow the law - seemingly because they are minorities.

Both of these statements could have been better phrased. And you would expect the people who made them to have understood that they would be widely quoted. So why didn't they stop for a moment, and express themselves in a way that wouldn't garner such controversy? Williams could have expressed a fear of terrorism without appearing to paint all Muslims as plane bombers. Justice Sanders could have pointed out the factors that land members of some groups in prison at a higher rate, rather than appear to blame simple group membership. I understand the idea that feelings are authentic, and we should always be able to be authentic, but the real world doesn't work that way, and we all know it doesn't. So why do we continue to allow our emotions, especially negative ones, guide our public discourse?

Radiance


Just enough fog to make the sunshine visible...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Beaches Are For Lovers


Two pairs of lovers, out enjoying what may be the last nice day of the year. I wish I could have had them dominate the picture a little better, but this was the best angle that I could get where the camera could focus on everyone at once.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Me? Wrong? Never Happen

With the Cameron Todd Willingham case being the subject of tonight's Frontline, I decided to poke around and see if anything new had come up recently. One of the things that I found is this recent entry in the Dallas Morning News' Death Penalty Blog. Outside of a certain disingenuousness in the idea that just because arson hasn't been ruled out, that Willingham must have been guilty, I find the adversarial stance taken in the article to be indicative of the problem with the Death Penalty. While it's accurate to say that anti-Death Penalty activists have an agenda, it's also worth noting that they seem to be the only people who think that it's worth getting to the bottom of people's factual guilt or innocence.

To a degree, Death Penalty supporters have bought into the same reasoning as critics - that a finding that an innocent person has ever been executed would render capital punishment completely inappropriate and wrong, for ever and ever. Thus, they seem to become invested in the guilt of the people that have been executed.

This strikes me as misguided. If you're going to accept that any given form of punishment exists, you also have to accept that it's going to be applied to the wrong people at least once in a blue moon. Innocent people have died in prison before - no reasonable person has called for the abolition of incarceration on that basis.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Again?

Update:

Looks like in the meantime, the large campaign signs were replaced - and vandalized again. I don't know what it is about campaign season that brings out the childish in people, but I'll be glad when this is all said and done.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Iconoclasm

Well, it's Election Season again (ballots came in the mail yesterday), and that means that there will be signs everywhere you look for the next couple of weeks, and a pretty good period of time beyond that, more than likely. Some signs will last longer than others, or course.


Now, I must confess to not really understanding the point of vandalizing the other side's signs. (It's not like I'm going to forget the Dino Rossi is running for Senate.) Here, the Democrats appear to be the culprits, but I've come across enough Jay Inslee signs tossed into the bushes over the past couple of days to have no illusions over the fact that wrecking each other's signs is an integral part of both camp's ground games.

Children, children...

Off-Target Demographic

Sorry... I've been slacking recently. Anyway, on with the show.

If you spend enough time on TVTropes, you'll know that there are certain tropes which get the Troper community up in arms, especially when they are used in Real Life. Hollywood Pudgy and Hollywood Homely can be especially egregious.

While reading through the outraged reactions of Troperville denizens to some particularly over-the-top instances of women being Hollywood Pudgy, a thought came to me. "There are an awful lot of people who don't think that a woman needs to be a size 4 in order to be attractive enough to be in movies. So why aren't people making movies for them?" One thing that I've noticed about the entertainment media industry is that it appears to have only a single target demographic - if you fall outside of it, no one cares that you exist, even though you're likely in the company of millions of other people - at least some of whom must have disposable income that Hollywood and/or Madison Avenue would love to get their hands on. But you see this in other areas - news outlets all tend to act the same, despite the fact that Fox News has demonstrated that there is a market for political reporting in other stripes, you're either Fox News, or you aren't - there doesn't appear to be much of an attempt to reach people who don't find the constant sniping between the two camps worthwhile. By the same token, the 24-hour news cycle has created a certain sort of cable news model that people constantly complain about - and the major players always explain that this is what "the market" wants - seemingly oblivious to the fact that the volume of complaints about it that they get must hint at a different market that isn't being catered to - and therefore is waiting to be tapped.

But no-one ever seems to want to make the decision to go after that other market. Maybe they don't see it as large or wealthy enough to be profitable, or they don't want to be seen as abandoning the mainstream for a "fringe." Or maybe we simply need to be louder about our tastes?

Monday, October 11, 2010

On Second Thought

For starters, I feel that I should apologize. I am, after all, part of the target demographic for negative campaign advertising - the voter who really isn't fired up for either candidate, but might be considered vaguely hostile towards one camp. Since the candidate towards whom I have some hostility does not feel it worth the time to court my vote, the best that he can hope for is that I "stay home" on election day. (Metaphorically speaking, since here in Washington most, of not all, counties now vote entirely by mail.) Hence, the signs.

For some reason, I have only seen these signs in my immediate neighborhood. Although the 1st Congressional District IS pretty large - maybe the bulk of the signs are posted out farther away from Seattle, in Snohomish and Kitsap counties up north. As far as I'm concerned, the message is pretty clear - don't vote for Representative Inslee. Okay. I can live with that. But who should we vote for? Well, there the signs don't help you, as is often the case with negative campaigns. But this goes back to the target demographic - people who aren't fired up about Representative Inslee or the Democrats, but aren't really all that enthusiastic about James Watkins and/or the Republicans either. And that, honestly, would be me.

You know what? Just stay home Election Day.
I never paid much attention to yard signs when I lived in Illinois. Since moving to Washington, I've really only noticed "attack signs" like this directed at Democrats - Patty Murray and Ron Sims being the other targets. But then again, when you live in a Democratic stronghold, one doesn't expect to see the Democrats working to suppress voter turnout.

But even though I understand the political motivation for putting out the signs, I don't like them. I don't know if I've ranted about this on the weblog before, but there's something unbecoming about trying to suppress voter turnout through attempting to stoke voter apathy. The idea behind a representative democracy is to get as many people involved as possible, even if that involvement is only tangential. Undermining voter turnout because a candidate isn't confident that they can motivate enough people to come out and vote for them seems to be needlessly destructive. True - I live in a Democratic stronghold. And true, most Republicans seem to rub me the wrong way - mainly because I'm neither socially conservative or a defense hawk. But still, this Watkins guy has to have something going for him. If "Citizens for Watkins" has the money to put up anti-Inslee signs, they could have better spent it on pro-Watkins signs, that highlighted what their candidate stands for, or wants to do, to go along with their regular signs. (I also find it interesting that the anti-Inslee signs are among the few Republican signs that are red. The actual James Watkins signs are blue.)

But I am now officially irritated, and have decided that I'm going to vote to re-elect Representative Inslee. (At least until Representative Inslee's campaign does something to hack me off.) Yes, I understand that it's pretty flimsy reasoning, and I'm really doing something that I don't like to do - voting against someone, rather than voting for someone. But I regard voter turnout as important, and I actively dislike campaigning styles that are designed to suppress it. Even more so, I suspect, when it's my vote that's targeted for suppression.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Aum

Should Christians stay away from yoga because of its demonic roots? Totally. Yoga is demonic. If you just sign up for a little yoga class, you're signing up for a little demon class.
Mark Driscoll, Pastor, Mars Hill Church, Seattle
I'm going to leave aside for the time being the atrocities that have been committed due to the idea that any religion other than the one true faith is the product of supernatural evil attempting to lead people astray, and the common idea that any attractive thing that hasn't been pre-approved for your consumption is a trap.

What caught my attention was the headline: "Yoga 'demonic'? Critics call ministers' warning a stretch." It had made number 1 on the most read and most e-mailed stories lists this afternoon. It was a distant second for most commented, but the top spot for that was held by an open thread on the UW-ASU football game. It was unsurprising that people gravitated towards the story. Here in the Seattle area, Evangelical religion lives, just like it does everywhere else, but a lot of people are somewhere between mildly skeptical and openly scornful. Given this, it's pretty easy to generate pageviews with a sensational enough headline - adding in a pun doesn't hurt, either. And people have started to catch on. As one commenter put it.
How is this news!?!? Whenever some moron of a preacher comes up with something stupid to say just to "spark" a debate, you fools in the media jump right up and give him a platform!
Amen.

When Pastor Driscoll calls for the next Crusade against the Flexible Infidel, Mars Hill parishioners start crucifying Yoga instructors or the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary declares that the killing of practitioners isn't a sin, then that's something to write about.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

But It Wasn't Me

Here is an article on the emergence of companies that seek to make their next buck by promising to tell employers which employees will do something wrong -- so that they can be fired prior to actually doing something wrong -- so as to avoid the legal liability of having someone on staff who does something wrong. (Except for those people high enough up the corporate food chain that they wouldn't be subjected to this. Does anyone actually think a system like this would have been allowed to nab Dennis Kozlowski or Andrew Fastow? Although given the trajectory of Fastow's career, it might have been a benefit for him.)

But all of the Big Brother hysteria (and personal cynicism) aside, there is a simple question: How does the software know who you are, exactly? Lets say that your name is James or Mary Smith. Congratulations! You have the most popular first and last names in the nation! (As of the 2000 census, if I remember correctly.) There's likely at least one other person with your name in whatever city you live in, if it's of any size. And now the HR department of your company has been warned that you've been displaying "Poor Judgment" online, and your supervising manager has been notified. If the purpose of these software packages is the "protection of the company from future behavior" you could be out on the street without knowing what hit you, for something that not only you haven't even done, but something that it was decided that you were going to do because of something that someone else did. (Whew!)

When (not if, most likely) systems like this come on-line, it's going to be hard for a lot of people, and not just the ones who staged their own "college kids gone wild" party that winds up with their faces (and other parts of them) plastered all over Facebook and elsewhere and then blows up in their faces five years later. The harder any given online individual is to distinguish from any other, the greater the likelihood that they'll be nabbed for something they didn't do. About the only real way to be "safe" would be to have a highly visible, unique and scrupulously clean online life. But since this is all about protecting the companies, that might not help much, either. It's going to take something that we have a tendency to shy away from - holding Corporate America accountable for its actions, and not just those that damage the stock price directly.

Seriously?

Well, the LaRouchies are in town with their hyper-conspiratorial take on life, the universe and everything. And they brought their "Obama as Hitler" posters with them.

When left of center people talk about "the Loony Left," this is who they're referring to. Although it's somewhat difficult to actually describe where on the political spectrum they fall - since you sort of have to be on the same planet as any political spectrum that you're trying to be a part of.

And if you're wondering just how the impeachment of President Obama (who's being framed for poor taste in facial hair, apparently) would make it possible to reinstate Glass-Steagall, I have no Earthly clue. I listened to the LaRouche supporters for as long as they would talk, and after the third (or fourth) time they directly contradicted something they'd just said thirty seconds earlier, I could no longer make heads or tails of what their point was.

Monday, October 4, 2010

How's That Go?

Not having an accessible e-mail address on a site has advantages. It keeps random yahoos from spamming you with advertisements for Viagra or knockoff designer goods. But it also prevents the public from easily notifying you that you've misspelled something. But they'll figure out sooner or later. Although I would have thought that these guys would have access to the best spell-checkers in the business...

Friday, October 1, 2010

Lo, These Many Years...

Sometimes, I think the real driving force behind nostalgia is that "back in the day," we didn't take things as seriously. They were just... there. Someone had an idea that they thought was good, and they ran with it. It wasn't of economic importance; it wasn't going to put 6,000 people out of work if it turned out to be a flash in the pan... it was what it was, and you could take it for that, and it didn't need to be anything else.

I think this game was more fun 30 years ago...Still nerdy, after all these years...
Back when I started playing Dungeons and Dragons, it wasn't an industry, it was just a fun way to waste some time, playing what's really just a remarkably involved game of "pretend." Cross Lord of the Rings with Cops and Robbers and add in a dash of the Game of Life, and pretty much there you are. But in the three decades that have come and gone, the game has gone from being some little booklets put out by a small outfit that only die-hard wargamers had ever heard of to a massive production by one of the largest toy companies on Earth.

The old versions are long gone now, unless you're a collector. But a new group of game companies has sprung up with the express intent of recreating the feel (and in some cases, the look) of the originals. And even though it strikes me as bizarre, I think I know where they're coming from. The current game just isn't the same. Part of it is simple evolution. It's much more sophisticated than the original. But part of it is just plain baggage - the accumulated weight of decades of expectations that people expect to have filled, and of changes, some big and some small, designed to keep something that people have become familiar with fresh and new.

Of course, there's always the element of wanting to turn back the clock. Not that I want to be 11 again, but there was something really fun in barely having any Earthly clue as to what I was doing or attempting to accomplish, and when you're not quite a teenager yet, a lot of your world can be enjoyably confusing in a way that the Adult world can never quite manage.

But then again, this is the nice thing about book nostalgia, isn't it? They keep better than vintage cars, and you don't have to worry about someone releasing them on DVD. As long as they stay on the shelf, you can always go back to them. And while they'll always be familiar, give them long enough, and you have to discover their contents all over again.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Need To Know

Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.
Palinisms

At the same time, fatigue is setting in. [American Muslim leaders] wonder: How many more times will they have to condemn violent extremism before non-Muslim Americans believe them?
Fellow Americans' suspicions frustrate US Muslims

People assume most Christians are heavy-handed, pushy, intolerant bigots bent of dominating any other culture or idea and supplanting it with their own whims because, for the most part, the ones who speak up the most ARE heavy-handed, pushy, intolerant bigots bent on dominating any other culture or idea and supplanting it with their own whims. It sucks. It's horrible. And it's the what everyone of any faith, political idea, or lifestyle has to deal with. People always focus on the loud minority who ruins everything. And like any other group, the only way you can combat this is making your views and, in this case, your kindness and actual testimony louder than the hateful prattle of those hurting your beliefs.
Something Positive
In effect -- once a negative stereotype about a group is demonstrated to have some truth to it, any individual or subset that wishes to be regarded differently must take the burden of proving that they do not conform to the stereotype upon themselves. This is a pernicious idea that releases the rest of us of a requirement of understanding the people around us. To be blunt, a kernel of truth sanctions a level of bigotry. (One of these days, I think, I am going to have to sit down and deal with the topic of bigotry.) We have become too accepting of this idea that the loudest, most violent or most present members of a group form the default picture, and that it's up to others to paint a new picture. Where in this understanding is the idea that the rest of us have some sort of responsibility to understand the people we interact with? Why should people always have to explain that they aren't "that kind" of Skinhead? Is it REALLY that hard to drop in on Wikipedia for a moment and do some quick reading? And if you, like me, are leery of using Wikipedia as a source, the good articles have lots of references, since the site frowns on original research and unverified claims.

The modern world is not a game for the passive. We're better off when we actively seek out information on other people, rather than shifting to them a burden of proof that they aren't who it might be convenient for us that they be at the time.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I Don't See You Anywhere

We all understand that Google is important. Ever since it came out of nowhere to trounce all of its rivals in the search engine wars (Does anyone even remember Alta Vista and Lycos any more?), Google has gone on to become one of the most important companies to our digital lives since Microsoft. So when Google manages to mislay your town, it has consequences. Local businesses immediately feel the hit, as new customers, accustomed to relying on Google to find enterprises that they don't already know how to get to, wind up going elsewhere.

It's the dark side of technology. Once a certain level of dependency is reached, people basically forget how to live without it. Cellular phones are a prime example. A few years ago, a serious windstorm took out large swaths of both the local power grid and cellular network for a few days. Within hours, there was a small crowd of people clustered around the base of the nearest cell tower, plaintively holding up their phones, as if appealing to a distant deity. (I was expecting them to haul out a goat, chicken or unattended third-grader for a sacrifice to the Cellular Gods any minute.) When I asked one woman if she'd ever been in a situation where she didn't have phone service, she said yes, but this was different. She'd crammed so many services that hadn't even existed a decade previously into her phone that once the network went down, she (and the rest of the assembled supplicants) had effectively become digital cripples.

It's almost to the point where, as some acquaintances remarked earlier today, that if your online presences ceases to exists, you may as well fad away along with it...

Good Intentions

What Christopher [Hitchens] should understand is that for those who are praying for him, to somebody or nobody, it is not necessarily about asking God to save him. It is not an insult. They are giving him the greatest gift they can, no matter what form it takes. (I'm not talking here about those who pray that he will renounce his atheism to save his soul or those who pray he will go to hell.)
Sally Quinn - Why I'm praying for Christopher Hitchens
I'm tempted to disagree with Ms. Quinn's exclusion of those people who pray that Mr. Hitchens will renounce atheism. While we might find their wish for divine mind control to be unsettling, they are, in effect, acting on a sincere wish that someone not go to Hell - which is much more than can be said for those people who are willing to take the time to ask the Divine to consign someone to eternal torture, seemingly for no better reason than their own smug assurance that they are correct in their worldviews. (Since there's no way of determining if someone has, in fact, been sent to Hell, the place itself is of little use as a disciplinary measure.)

But I'm also tempted to disagree with Ms. Quinn's assertion that Mr. Hitchens should not be insulted by the fact that people are praying for him. It's always considered bad form to force a gift upon someone that does not want it. By the same token, it is difficult to claim that you respect someone with one breath and with the other do something that you know that person disapproves of, in their name.

Of course, outside of those people who have the temerity to wish that Mr. Hitchens go, literally, to Hell, people are praying for him with good intentions. But, as they say, the road to Hell is paved with just such good intentions.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tiles

Christians are often pressured to conform to ideas that God does not require we hold.
One of things about living in the Seattle area is that one receives a lot of church circulars in the mail. I suspect that this is because, once upon a time, Washington was the most "unchurched" state in the nation, and word that this has changed hasn't gotten out yet. Or, perhaps just as likely, word has gotten out, and credit is given to the mailings, so we see more of them.

The quote that leads off this post is from the most recent of the circulars that found its way into my mailbox. I found it interesting on a couple of levels. The first is that the idea of Christians being pressured to adopt non-Christian ideas (Does "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," count?) has always struck me as odd, given that about 80% of the United States self-identifies as Christian of one sort or another. But I suppose that a shared victimization narrative is a very handy way of promoting unity and openness, which is why so many groups appeal to a sense of victimization when looking for new members. The second is the idea that God requires that Christians hold certain ideas, beyond those needed to be Christian, given that most Christian denominations clearly don't require that one simply go through whichever version of the Bible they look to, and take everything in it. To touch on an obvious example, the next time a Christian tells you that they "do everything the Bible tells them to," ask them about dietary laws. (Then run. Quickly. Although my point is not mockery, but to limn the fact that vast numbers of the rules and strictures set down in the Bible are considered completely unnecessary or even wildly inappropriate for modern society, even by devout believers.)

Given that the holidays are coming, more mailings from different churches are on their way. Together, they create an interesting mosaic of local religious thought. We'll see what's on the next tessera to arrive.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Month After Month

The paycheck cycle we've talked about before remains extreme. It is our responsibility to figure out how to sell in that environment, adjusting pack sizes, large pack at sizes the beginning of the month, small pack sizes at the end of the month.
Bill Simon, head of Wal-Mart's U.S. operations, at Goldman Sachs Retail Conference. 15 September, 2010.
Now, I don't work at/for Wal-Mart, so I don't really know what "pack size" means, but it seems safe to assume that its simply package size - how much you receive in one bag/box/container. And so, if I'm reading this correctly, Wal-Mart is basically altering the size of things they sell based on when in the month it is. In the beginning of the month, when people have more money, the mix of large to small packs is more heavily weighted towards large which presumably have higher price tags. As the month goes on, and people have less money to spend, pack sizes and thus prices recede until the next month begins. (I'm guessing at how the system works, but this makes sense to me...)

Now, I've never been paid on a monthly cycle before, so the idea that you could set up a retail operation to work to that was news to me. But as Mr. Simon goes on to say, there are also a lot of people who shop at Wal-Mart on some sort of government assistance, and I expect that many of those systems work on a monthly cycle. Of course, one of the things about the fact that so many parts of the world are so tightly connected is that you can actually watch things like this play out without ever having to observe them directly - you can watch the disposable income of Wal-Mart customers dwindle away over the course of 30 days (give or take, of course) by watching how the shelves are stocked in the stores, which is both endlessly fascinating and tragic at the same time.

Rolling Back The Years

According to The Hill “Republicans will unveil their new 'Contract With America' in Virginia on Thursday as they try to present a clear alternative to the Democrat-led Congress heading into the midterm elections.” Personally, I would have thought that all of the “Contract on America” snark that the last go-round engendered would have been inducement enough to pick a new name. It also seems kind of strange to call for another go-round of a “contract” that the Republican Congress under Newt Gingrich breached almost before they'd finished writing it. “This time we really mean it” has rarely been a resounding rallying cry...

The Hill's portrait of the new initiative isn't flattering, given that the new Contract comes off as a Republican bet that a majority of the American public so fed up with the Obama administration that they'd simply rather pretend that it never happened.

GOP leaders have already hinted at some of the ideas that could be included in the contract. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), for instance, has called for a two-year extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts and a reduction in spending to 2008 levels. [...]

Republicans have also pressed for repeal of the healthcare reform law, and for replacing it with new reforms. Some GOP figures have also called for repealing the Wall Street reform law that established a new regulatory structure for the financial sector.
Simply asking for 2009 and 2010 to be stricken from the record doesn't seem so much like a plan for going forward as much as it does a desire for a status quo other than the one that we already have... And perhaps I'm wrong, but if that status quo had been so wonderful, why were the Republicans so beaten up in the 2008 elections?

And (I'm so going to get myself in trouble with this) if we're going to roll the clock back to the “better days” that are now behind us, why stop at 2008? 2000 was a great year for me. And who wouldn't want to have Congress magically make them 10 years younger?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Interests of Power

The true interest of an absolute monarch generally coincides with that of his people. Their numbers, their wealth, their order, and their security, are the best and only foundations of his real greatness; and were he totally devoid of virtue, prudence might supply its place, and would dictate the same rule of conduct.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter V.
Whatever happened to this idea, I wonder. Now, we're quick to assume that politicians that we don't like don't care about how many of us are left alive, how well-off we are, if our society is stable or if we are secure in our lives and property. There's an entire industry, it seems, devoted to spreading the idea that a President, Governor or even Mayor of the wrong political sect are not only devoid of both virtue and prudence, but that in their eyes, their real greatness comes from how much injury they can perpetrate upon their constituency without being either stymied or removed from office.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Um... A Black Person Did It?

Just once I'd like to hear a fake kidnap victim claim she had been abducted by a clean-cut blond guy in Dockers.
Susan Paynter (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4 May, 2005)
Bethany Storro, who claimed that "a black woman with a ponytail threw acid in her face" has now recanted her story and is saying that the burns were self-inflicted.

I know that race relations have come a long way in the United States. But I won't believe that we've "made it," until people stop thinking that "blame a phantom black person" is a ticket to credibility for bogus crimes.

(And what's up with invoking one's faith in Christianity when attempting to pull the wool over people's eyes? I can already see the bumper stickers: Who Would Jesus Frame?)

I Am The Law

When I was in college, I had a job with the Student Patrol. It was a nice gig, doing a bunch of things that it didn't make sense to have a state policeman (the campus police were a detachment of the state police) do. One evening, I was "walking my beat," tramping across the campus in the falling snow (a gentle snowfall can make even a concrete jungle look amazing). To be out in the weather, I was up on top of the concrete causeways that traveled across the campus, about a story off the ground. Nothing much was happening, until I heard a man's voice below me, going on about how he had a temper, and she'd wish that she hadn't made him angry, et cetera. I listened for a bit, then looked over the edge, and saw a man walking along under the edge of the causeway. I took a bit of time to commit some of his details to memory, then retreated to the center of the causeway, out of sight, and radioed back to the dispatchers at the police station, with what I'd heard and a description of the man. Of course, given that I was on the radio, the officers could hear me, too, and within a couple of minutes squad cars were converging on my location. But while I was talking to the station, the man I'd been following disappeared. Because he was under the causeway, in an area sheltered from the snow, he hadn't left tracks, so I had no way of knowing where he might have gone. The officers started fanning out to look for him, figuring that he couldn't have gone far on foot. Not long after this, there was a call from the administration building - one of the officers had caught a man fighting with a woman there. Everyone rushed to the scene, including myself. Sure, enough, it was the same guy. He'd turned around and headed back the way he'd come and gone back to punch out his (ex-?)wife who worked in the building. Given that the police were already looking around for a man matching his description, he didn't manage to get back out of the building before being arrested. A couple of the police officers were really happy that they'd caught the guy, and commended me for calling him in. I, however, was crushed.

Some people get into law enforcement to help people, but some people get into law enforcement to get the bad guys.
Jennifer Granik ("The Shout" 4 September, 2005)
And some people get into law enforcement to help people by getting the bad guys. It's an easy formulation to make. I was bitterly upset that I hadn't managed to keep tabs on the guy before he'd gone back to the administration building.

I recall this episode every time I come across a story about the police, and the fact that people are unhappy with them for having done this or that. With a little careful reading, I can usually see how the officers in question had become focused on getting the bad guys, and how things got out of hand from there. I think that if I'd gone on to become a police officer, that maybe I'd be another one of those types who believes in making the world a safer place through clearing the streets of riffraff. I don't know. But I do understand that in the real world people don't do bad things because they understand that they're doing a bad thing. They're either doing a good thing or a necessary thing.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

He Must Have Tripped

Dorothy Rabinowitz takes Liberals to task for being insufficiently sensitive to the sensibilities of "the public" around radical Islam and the Cordoba Initiative. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is one of her targets, identified as the best exemplar of Liberal faith that "ordinary Americans are lost to reason and decency." She goes on to castigate the Mayor for cautioning people about jumping to conclusions.

It's hard to know the sort of rabble the mayor had in mind when he told a television interviewer, prior to Shahzad's identification, that it "could be anything," someone mentally disturbed, or "somebody with a political agenda who doesn't like the health-care bill." Nowhere in the range of colorful possibilities the mayor raised was there any mention of the most likely explanation—another terrorist attempt by a soldier of radical Islam, the one that occurred to virtually every American who had heard the reports.
But I seem to recall that it "occurred to virtually every American who had heard the reports" that the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building had been carried out "by a soldier of radical Islam." Despite this, Rabinowitz seems convinced that there was absolutely no reason to assume that anyone other than a jihadi had left a car bomb in Times Square. And she can't understand why anyone would say that "There would be no toleration of 'any bias or backlash against Pakistani or Muslim New Yorkers.'"
That there has been a conspicuous lack of any such behavior on the part of New Yorkers or Americans elsewhere from the 9/11 attacks to the present seems not to have impressed Mr. Bloomberg.
Of course, less than a month after she wrote this, a New York City cab driver who answered in the affirmative when asked if he was Muslim was stabbed. And here in Seattle, a man attacked a 7-11 clerk. According to police, "After the suspect struck (the clerk) with his fist he said, 'You're not even American, you're Al-Qaeda. Go back to your country.'" The assault was triggered by the fact the man was wearing a turban. Which he was wearing because he was a Sikh. Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg was correct not to be impressed. But more to the point, these were not the first attacks on people since 9/11, as Rabinowitz claims.
The council study also found there have been more than 2,000 reports of harassment of Muslims since last Sept. 11. Muslims have been spat at and had windows smashed at their homes and shops. Mosques have been firebombed. Muslim women have had their head wraps torn off in public.
The article that this is excerpted from was published on 2 September, 2002. 2,000+ attacks in less than a year is less "a conspicuous lack of any such behavior" than it is a conspicuous unwillingness to remember it.

There is a segment of the American public that looks down on their fellow citizens as violent, mouth-breathing knuckle-draggers who will beat up or murder anyone who isn't sufficiently like them, or just has something they want, at the slightest provocation. There's no denying that. Get someone worked up about about hate crimes, or crime in the inner city and you'll see what I mean. And it's a safe bet that the hysteria around crime in the United States, from both wings of the political spectrum, is overblown. But there's a difference between making a mountain out molehill, and making the mountain up out of whole cloth. By conflating the two, Rabinowitz panders to the "average American" as she sees them, and as they want to see themselves - good people who have been maligned by evil Liberals who seek to castigate them for not being sufficiently enlightened. But the fact you were framed doesn't mean that a crime wasn't committed (or, for that matter, that you haven't committed one), and for her to sweep the instances of violence that have occurred under the rug simply feeds into an attitude of self-righteous victimization. And that doesn't do anyone justice.