Sunday, January 31, 2010


On Friday, Toyota Chief Executive Akio Toyoda made his first public comments about the recall. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he told Japanese broadcaster NHK: "I am very sorry that we are making our customers feel concerned."

"People can feel safe driving in the current situation," he added. "Please trust that we are responding so it will be even safer."

He was seen driving off in a black Audi, according to ABC News.
New gas pedals on way to dealers, Toyota says
Whether it was intended to or not, the last line seems to have given at least one person the impression that Mr. Toyoda wasn't as confident in his company's cars as his words may have suggested. And I could see how you would get to that. After all, wouldn't one expect the head of Toyota to drive (or be driven around in) Toyota or Lexus vehicles? Of course you would. If, that is, he were in Japan or the United States. If you've never been to Europe or Japan, you might be surprised to find that the automotive market is dominated by domestic producers in a way that simply isn't true of the United States. You can spend two weeks in London or Tokyo and count the number of American-branded cars you see on your fingers. The United States is remarkable, at least in my experience in being a nation with a large domestic auto industry that still imports large numbers of cars. Given that Switzerland is bordered by France, Germany and Italy, all of whom have strong domestic automakers, it's not the least bit surprising that Toyotas would be pretty thin on the ground, even if the head of the company is in town. But, if you think of the auto market everywhere as being similar to that of the United States, you'd never realize that, and might instead conclude that an auto-executive seen in another brand is snubbing his own company.

Which is where another really important part of journalism comes into play - context, or the lack thereof. News is more than just information, or a recitation of facts. Those facts fit into a larger frame of reference that defines the overall narrative. It's difficult for an audience to understand the information they're being given, if they don't have a frame of reference for it. So shouldn't journalism also be expected to contextualize, rather than simply disseminate, information?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


The country faces a fundamental disconnect between the services the people expect the government to provide, particularly in the form of benefits for older Americans, and the tax revenues that people are willing to send to the government to finance those services.
Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf. Entitlement Spending and the Long-Term Budget Outlook.
While I would expect that Director Elmendorf is fundamentally correct, I would offer a slightly different take on his words:
The country faces a fundamental disconnect between the actual costs of the services the people expect the government to provide, and their impression of the amount of tax revenues available to the government to finance those services.
That is to say, that rather than (intentionally or not) being too cheap to pay for the services that they expect (or just as often, deride) from government, the average American can't understand how a pot of money as large as the annual budget of the United States fails to pay for everything they feel needs to be paid for. Therefore, they have trouble understanding why either taxes should be raised or services diminished, and this allows politicians to conscript the old hobgoblins of waste, mismanagement and fraud (a.k.a.: programs that benefit someone else) to rally public anger over funding requests (usually for programs that will benefit someone else).

It's easy to understand why this is the case. Governments routinely deal in amounts that most of us can only imagine, and even that not very well - even if we can imagine quite a lot. For most of us, the concept of one billion dollars is more of an abstraction than a fabulous amount of money. If one heads down to the Sodo (South Downtown) area of Seattle and looks at the two stadiums that stand there, it can be hard to really wrap one's brain around the idea that several hundreds of millions of dollars went into those structures. Somewhere along the line, just as it did when we were children, large numbers quietly fade into "infinity," and we can no longer conceptualize of just how one would go about reducing a number with so many zeroes after it to just plain zero. (Although I'm pretty sure that I could manage to do in a billion dollars, given the chance.)

The game of politics is a large part of the problem. Liberal politicians promise benefits and Conservative politicians promise tax breaks, each with the understanding that when they implement it, it will be an investment that will automagically reap greater rewards than the costs. Aid to the poor will enable them to become taxpayers, and contribute more to the economy than is given to them. Lower tax rates will increase the volume of taxable transactions enough to pay for itself and then some. Both of these articles of faith have their limits, which no-one ever want to test to see if we have reached. But then again, faith only succeeds to the degree that it not subject to tests of proof, and so the myriad failures of such policies to work out the way they were promised through the past are conveniently ignored, chalked up to the viciousness or vacuousness of the opposition or dismissed as lies spread by people somehow brain-damaged enough to have a sincere aversion to wealth and prosperity.

And we, as the overall public, are the rest of the problem. We become attached to entitlements, "sugar cookies," as my friend Curtiss so aptly terms them, and, especially once we start planning our standards of living around them, feel that it would be an unwarranted hardship to do without them. Of course, someone, sooner or later, is going to do without them. The system is unsustainable as it is, and we've started looking around to see who weaker then ourselves can be made to bear the costs, without reaping the benefits. That's unlikely to be a workable plan, and to the degree that politicians advance it, they should be (but likely won't be) roundly punished.

But the ledger must be balanced, and the two sides reconnected. We can either do it for ourselves, or have it done for us. Or should that be to us?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Hold on a Second...

I was watching a show on the AntiChrist yesterday, and a thought came to me. According to the breakdown, at the time of the Rapture, all of the Christians (however that's defined) are taken away to be in heaven with Christ, and then there are seven years of tribulations, and then a huge battle between good and evil ... So if you consider the battle of/at Armageddon to be an actual fight between Earthly armies, doesn't that mean that everyone fighting on the side of God in the final battle is a non-Christian at the time of the Rapture?

Safe For Democracy

There has been quite a bit of uproar over the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. One major complaint is that by allowing organizations the safe free-speech rights as people, coupled with the idea that money is form of speech (so that you can't limit the ability to fund), the Supreme Court has created a situation in which those people with the greatest access to money will have the loudest voices. And, in that regard, they are most likely correct. And while that's a problem, perhaps it isn't the problem that we should be dealing with.

It is commonly taken as an article of faith that any advertising or public relations campaign, sufficiently sophisticated, is indistinguishable from literal mind control. (At least on the Left - it may also be common on the Right, but I know fewer Righties then Lefties, and pretty much [but not quite] everyone I know on the Left believes this to one degree or another.) Put another way, any well-enough funded media outreach is more or less capable of bending the public to its will, regardless of what it is they are selling or how good or bad an idea that buying it might be. And while I was a student of the human mind for a while, I cannot say with any certainty that this true or false, outside of noting that the multiple billions of dollars that go into advertising each year must be earning some return on that investment. Again, this might be a problem, but it might not be the problem.

THE problem, in this instance (as far as I'm concerned) could very well be that we're operating on a model that we shouldn't be. The assumption is that the American public a) sits back and passively waits for information to be poured down their throats and b) tends to trust anyone that they see on television or understand to be an expert. To the degree that this assumption is true, it's what needs to be attacked, and this isn't something that you'll ever be able to deal with via legislation. But we already have the tools to do something about it. Well, most of us, anyway. The World Wide Web is a repository for a vast amount of information, on pretty much any topic that you might care to learn about. And even if you can't find the information that you're looking for, it's likely that you can figure out where you can find it. Of course, one cannot be assured that any particular information that one comes across on the web is at all accurate. But, then again, you have that same problem with television, radio and newspapers, correct? Of course, many of us have become accustomed to putting a certain amount of faith in certain outlets, which is why you find Acai berry ads thinly disguised as news reports or consumer information. Personally, I'm surprised that anyone with an intellect that rivals that of a cabbage would be taken in by such a transparent ruse, but perhaps I'm less skeptical than simply suspicious. While one could make the point that the average person doesn't have the time to seek out and vet the sort of data that would make them a more informed voter, and I can understand that, it points at another part of the problem. Understanding the political messages that we're being given should be a high enough priority that it's worth spending some time on, and we should be willing to push back against other demands on our time (even our jobs) to accommodate it.

In the end, I suspect that republics, let alone democracies, are not forms of government that are workable for masses of passive people, and to the degree that they operate on the will (or lack thereof) of the majority, enough passive people make republican and democratic forms of government unworkable for anyone. And therein lies the rub - it's difficult to create a situation in which passivity is dangerous only to those who engage in it. But to the extent that government of the people, by the people and for the people requires active, engaged and deliberative people, attempting to create a world that is safe for passivity does us no good.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Massachusetts Blues

"Mr. Brown was able to appeal to independents who were anxious about the economy and concerned about the direction taken by Democrats, now that they control all the branches of government, both on Beacon Hill and in Washington."
G.O.P. Takes Massachusetts Senate Seat
I'm not from Massachusetts, so I don't know about Beacon Hill, but I do know that the idea that the Democrats "control all the branches of government" on Capitol Hill is patently false. For starters, the Supreme Court of the United States is not an elected body, and it is officially non-partisan -- and even if it wasn't, right now, it looks as though it would be 5 to 4 in favor of Republicans. Additionally, the idea that Democrats control Congress is iffy, at best. While President Bush may have wielded more power than was strictly due to the office of the President, he did so because, in effect, Congressional Republicans moved in lockstep as efficiently as if they'd been legally barred from thinking for themselves. Democrats, on the other hand, can't agree that the sky is blue 80% of the time. While the Bush Administration reduced the Democrats to functional irrelevance with a smaller majority than the Democrats have now, the Obama Administration finds that it's alleged control of Congress is more of a hindrance than a help. And given how many different and oppositional constituencies the Democrats represent, they could have all but one seat in both houses, and still get nothing done.

(As mush as the common wisdom says that the Republican drive for purity is a huge mistake, for the time being, it's turning out to be brilliant. The Democratic attempt to pick up those voters the Republicans have cast out has done little for them other than make what was already a famously fractured party even more scattered.)

Democrats are an organized political force in name only. And while anyone who's ever watched two Democrats try to agree on anything may be fully aware of that, the G.O.P. has successfully conjured up the idea of a far-left Juggernaut to be the current political Hobgoblin. Amusingly, the Democrats were too dis-unified to even manage to combat the fiction of overwhelming unity.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The News From Abroad

It's interesting to read the news of the world as the rest of the world sees it. Or, given that English is the only language I can read, as the English-literate world sees it. It's a whole new set of preconceptions, understandings and biases, and it can fill in the gaps in the domestic coverage. But it also allows something of a look in from the outside. Despite claims to the contrary, pretty much every well-known domestic news outlet tends to skew their coverage in favor of the Home Team. This, even if you're ready for it, can give you a crooked understanding of the facts. To be certain, foreign news outlets can't really straighten things out for you, but it does become a handy reminder that things are, in fact, tilted in one direction or another.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Word that the Seattle Parks and Recreation department wants to institute a Code of Conduct that would ban (among other things) smoking in city parks had reignited the debate over a right to be comfortable in one's surroundings and the dangers of second-hand smoke. Sure there were other provisions in the proposal, and there was some discussion of those, but it was smoking that triggered the most online debate - one that's been going on in this area for a while now, having first started when a citizen initiative banned smoking in pretty much every building other than private homes, and within 25 feet of doors, windows and other places where outside air could enter a building.

This is turning into one of those situations where hard cases, and the unpopularity of smokers, seem to be conspiring to make bad law. You'd think, reading some of the anecdotes that people have presented in support of the proposed ban, that second-hand smoke was more dangerous than sky-diving without a parachute. Being the major urban area in a very Blue state, Seattle tends very strongly towards Nanny State solutions to problems, with people being very quick to point out how helpless and needful of protection their fellow citizens (and sometimes they, themselves) are. Sometimes you'd think that the average Seattlite isn't competent to cross the street without a note from their mother. I suspect that this trend towards always looking to government to solve every single potential problem that comes along it going to backfire one day, but it hasn't yet, so on it goes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Doing Good to Do Well

Google, perhaps suspecting that the government of China is behind hacking into the accounts of human-rights activists, had indicated that it may pull out of the country if the government doesn't agree to allow it to post uncensored results. As no-one expects the Chinese government to agree, Google China may well be closing up shop. One would expect that this would be greeted with cheers - after all, human rights activists were outraged that Google agreed to do business by the rules of the nations it operates in, and Congress drafted legislation that could have made their lives more difficult. The actual result? A nearly 2% hit to the company's stock price. And so far, we haven't heard much from members of Congress lining up to congratulate the company.

Now, Google is, after all, a business, and so we can be fairly certain that they're doing this for their own purposes, and not simply for the human rights stand. But if it's important that businesses act in "socially responsible" ways, it's just as important that they be rewarded for doing so. "Don't be evil" shouldn't translate into "No good deed (even if a little self serving) goes unpunished."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Getting What's Owed

Originally, I was going to tap out a short piece about several recent murders (and suspected murders) of people for their money. A music producer, a lottery winner, a mentally ill scientist - in recent days, their stories had come across the virtual pages of the local newspaper, and I had been thinking to speculate about what drives a person to kill someone else, to enrich themselves at that person's expense. But while I was walking this evening, I was listening to a BBC radio documentary: "Death to America," that I'd first downloaded some time ago. While at first, the two topics seemed completely unrelated, as I walked on, I realized that in a strange way, they did meet in the middle.

In the end, why people murder someone for their money is simple. They feel some sense of entitlement to what they other person has, for any number of reasons - they've worked hard all of their lives with little to show for it, the other person came into their money illegitimately, theirs is the greater need, they'll make better use of it - the list goes on and on, but at the bottom of it all, it's all the same thing - this should be mine - I'm owed.

In the same way, many people throughout the world are very upset with the way that the United States has conducted itself (or still does conduct itself) internationally. And, to the surprise and anger of many Americans, this is only to be expected. After all, despite all of the high-minded rhetoric and lofty ideals, the United States behaves on the international stage in much the same way that any other country does - in a way that protects its own interests. And somewhere along the way, we have come to understand that we are entitled to the success of our interests. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate this, to a degree. To oversimplify things, the Bush Administration launched both invasions basically because here were two foreign governments that wouldn't prove that they were on our side - even though there was little to no real domestic benefit to them doing so. Now, that same drumbeat has been started (mostly from the political Right) about Yemen - there are already suggestions that President Obama should be prepared to send in troops if the Yemeni government doesn't police it's own people to our satisfaction. Because we're entitled to peace and security.

But in the end, peace and security are like money - or any other resource. No-one, really, is entitled to them. Some obtain them will little to no effort, while others spend their whole lives toiling, and come away with nothing to show for it. Taking shortcuts in its pursuit brings grief to all involved.

Friday, January 8, 2010

In Profile

Recently, profiling has been on the mind of John McGuinness over at Man Bites Blog, and he's written about it in a couple of recent posts. In one, he makes a very good point:

Obviously, simplistic racial profiling, in so far as it reduces people to their race or origin, is an affront to personal dignity.
But, perhaps, it misses part of the point in the broader argument against racial profiling, especially of the simplistic sort.

In the end, there are really three reasons to profile:
  1. Savings in labor - you don't have to interact with every single person.
  2. Lower miss rate than a purely random sample - given the fact that you're not interacting with each and every possible perpetrator (i.e., the entire population), you want to have the greatest chance possible of catching the actual perpetrators (i.e., the actual people who are up to no good).
  3. Lower false positive rate - every moment spent working over a non-perpetrator is, basically, wasted time. The fewer false positives the system generates, the better.
If your profiling regime doesn't make some progress towards achieving goals 2 and 3, you're not really doing anything at all helpful. Profiling has acquired a bad name here in the United States, because basically, it was popular for an off-label use - deliberate harassment of an unpopular out-group. Stopping, say, young Latinos in nice cars on the highway and searching them for drugs might have saved a state trooper the time and trouble of stopping everyone who might drive by. But it gives a pass to any non-Latino who may be a drug courier, and it results in stopping a large number of Latinos who aren't drug couriers.

It's safe to say, given the tenor of some public comments, that deliberate harassment of an unpopular out-group is part of what's driving some popular support for profiling, vis-a-vis terrorism. Coupled with an increased illusion of safety is the fact that the people who are going to have to put up with the problems and indignities brought on by false positives are unsympathetic, out-group members. But simplistic racial profiling, while it may slake a fearful public's need to feel that someone is applying the boot to their tormentors, isn't likely to substantially bring down the rate of false positives, or push the terrorist catch rate to anything near the 100% that we're commonly told is the only acceptable outcome.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Red, Red, Whine

A co-worker showed me an e-mail he'd received from an acquaintance. The general jist of it is as follows - Talib terrorists capture three television network anchors, and an American soldier. Each is asked for their final request. The network anchors ask for some pretty banal stuff, although one of them has the presence of mind to ask to record the event. The soldier asks for a kick in the rear. After one of the Talib kicks him, the soldier gets his Rambo on, and kills every terrorist present, in rather graphic detail. The news anchors ask him why he wanted to be kicked in the rear, and are told that it was because when they reported the story, they wouldn't be able to portray the soldier as the aggressor.

While I understand the point that the author of the piece was attempting to make, the overall deliver struck me as simply being bitter, angry and (most disappointingly) whiny. And this seems indicative of the rhetoric that the Right has started adopting over the past few years. Whereas, once upon a time, Conservatism's motto seemed to be "No Whining," now it's apparently become fashionable to call attention to their alleged victimhood at every opportunity. I was in a bookstore the other day, and came across an audiobook by a Conservative personality which promised an accounting of how the "Mainstream Media" ignored the sexual indiscretions of Democrats while shouting those of Republicans from the rafters, along with other nefarious misdeeds perpetrated upon innocent Conservatives. Now, before you remind me that the Left does just as much whining as the Right, if not more, let me assure you, I know. The last time I went to a meeting of Democrats, I lamented not having brought bread and cheese. Perhaps it was the overall success of the tactic that has lead Republican boosters to abandon their former disdain for the practice, in favor of a remarkably wholehearted embrace.

But very few people ever get anywhere by constantly reminding others about what great victims they are. For my own part, while there are labels and distinctions that I will fight for, "greatest victim" is certainly not one of them. And I must admit to a level of disappointment that the Right has joined the race to the bottom in that regard.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Lost in the hysteria around this latest bombing attempt is this, I think: We tend to treat “safety” (as in freedom from risk of negative outcomes for which one is not directly responsible) as a both unalloyed and infinitely valuable Good. If a given level of safety X, is a good thing, then X+1 must be even better, and worth paying for – even before we know the actual cost.

This, I think, is part of what drives a notion of security that is best described as chasing loopholes – since we a questing, in effect, for perfect security, anything that keeps us from that goal must be done away with a quickly as possible. But this stops us from ever questioning whether or not the measures that we already have in place are good enough.

Someone will always make the argument that being alive and inconvenienced is immeasurably better than being dead. And from this grows the argument that my inconvenience is small price to pay not only for my own life, but also for someone else’s life. But here's the rub - this is not an absolute argument. After all, it’s also true that I would feel a lot safer if I didn’t have to drive to get back and forth to work. But no-one considers this an iron-clad rationale for an entitlement to work from the safety of my library. And this is the problem at the end of the day - my definition of Safety above is quite incorrect. We actually tend to treat safety as a freedom from fear - we feel safe when we're unafraid. Thus, perhaps the problem is that we're not chasing safety - we're chasing a feeling of well-being. And how does one put a price on feelings?

Friday, January 1, 2010


Quickly now, when I say the name "Cameron Todd Willingham" what comes to mind?

Hopefully, you said: "A possible wrongful execution." But I wouldn't be surprised if you said: "Who?" And I think that bothers me. When we last saw this case in the headlines, Texas Governor Rick Perry had effectively spiked the investigation into whether or not the science that had been used to convict Willingham was junk. While a number of people wondered what Governor Perry had to hide, it's a safe bet that this just a simple case of a question that goes unanswered doesn't make anyone look bad - or expose anyone to legal liability. And while the case might be making the grade for Top 10 News Stories of 2009 across Texas, it's not being talked about much anywhere else. Which presumably, is exactly what Governor Perry was betting on.

To a point, Cameron's guilt or innocence is beside the point. Partly because Cameron was executed in 2004, and partly because we shouldn't have the expectation that verdicts in criminal trials are ever going to be 100% accurate. So that leaves as the real issue the credibility of the legal system, especially when capital punishment is involved. Governor Perry is concerned with his own credibility. It's a valid concern, but it's likely to bite him in the buttocks once he leaves office, unless his successor is just as concerned with it. Especially given the fact that the Governor seems to have decided that ad hominem attacks on critics are a valid defense.

But how concerned are we with the credibility of the system? Very little, I think. From my vantage point, it smacks of "First they came for the communists, ..." Most of us aren't the least bit concerned with the credibility of the legal system - mainly because we have no concern of ever being the person who might be sent to prison, if not their demise, based on an incorrect conviction. But the apathy that "First they came..." evokes goes deeper than simply a faith that our own innocence will keep us safe. Governor Perry isn't the only person who is convinced that Cameron was guilty. Part of it is based on the fact that whether or not he was an arsonist, Cameron wasn't an angel - the arson trial wasn't his first run-in with the law. It's easy to be outraged (or at least say we are) when there's a sympathetic defendant with no prior criminal history. But whether we realize it our not, we have imbued our legal system with a vast amount of credibility - nearly to the point that the simple act of being arrested is tantamount to a conviction. That level of faith is a difficult thing to let go of - not only because of the void that it would leave, but because of the admission of error that it may entail.

There are a lot of injustices in the world. And there are more every day. Real ones, where there is no question of the evidence, no chance that we've gotten worked up over a guilty person with good public relations. So I'm not going to ask anyone to remember this one. That will be my job. (Let's see if I discharge it properly.) But I think that we should all pick a possible injustice to keep our eye on. Something that lies outside of the things that we passionate about. And be willing, every so often and in small ways, to make a little ruckus about it.

Fade Away

And the sun sets on another year, the last of a decade. Of course, over the course of the years, the Sun has shone its last on a lot of things. It's a safe bet that we didn't realize what we were seeing at the time. Humanity (or at least Americans - that sliver of humanity with which I have the most experience) often seems blind to events until they are safely (or regretably) past.

One wonders, now that we're at the dawn of a new year, if we'll gather the proper lessons from the one just past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think I know what the proper lessons are - but is there really anyone who ever thought differently?
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