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.

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


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.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Stupid, STUPID Rat Creatures

I just HAD to say it, didn't I?

We'll see if Westboro Baptist Church decides to see that bet and raise.
Sigh. You just knew these bozos would get involved. No matter how moronic a situation becomes, there's always room, it seems, for another idiot.

Dove's pastor was claiming that they'd effectively extorted a pledge from the Cordoba Initiative to either move the site elsewhere or abandon the project completely, in return for calling off their imbecilic book-burning (although both the developer and Imam Rauf say that they'd only agreed to talk). One wonders if Westboro has just given Dove a face-saving way to back out - or the Cordoba Initiative to accuse them of double-dealing.

P.S.: Just in case you were wondering...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Don't Smell Anything

If, instead of Muslim, much of the Middle East were Hindu, would there have been the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001? Would the Crusades have happened, if Paganism had held sway in Europe, rather than Christianity? Would a Buddhist United States of America have given rise to the Ku Klux Klan? Would a Native American follower of traditional religion have shot George Tiller?

Although the basic argument surrounding Islam in America as we come closer to the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks is one of whether or not Islam is "compatible" with "American values," there is a secondary question that many different faiths have had to answer at some point, for different reasons: "Does this faith make its followers more Evil than they otherwise would be?" (And on the other side of that coin, does a lack of faith make people more Evil than people with faith?) Even as I type it, it feels like a stupid question, perhaps because I have difficulty believing in the Mind Control Theory of Religion (or of Marketing, for that matter).

When Christopher Hitchens subtitled God is Not Great "How Religion Poisons Everything," I think that he went wide of the mark. My personal understanding has become that while we may think of our personal belief systems as being a form of detox, in fact, they simply blind us to the poisons that are already within us. Or, to be a bit more crude about it: Most of us are already assholes - we just use religion/spirituality/science/et cetera to pretend that our particular brand of assholery is the Way the Universe Intended Things.

Monday, September 6, 2010

We Control The Vertical...

I found this from Seth Godin's blog. Design With Intent is a simple enough concept - design things in such a way that it steers people towards using them in the way that you want them to be used, or that otherwise influences the users in certain ways.

While the cards might be great for designers, for everyone else, I suspect that they're a one-way ticket to paranoia. It's really easy to remember something that you came across that you didn't think much of before - that now seems like a sinister means of manipulating you. We live in a world where an increasing number of people are quick to make an assumption that others are acting in bad faith. (I spent an hour the other day in a conversation with a man who was convinced that the financial crisis was the result of deliberate attempts to loot the wealth of homeowners and buyers and deliberately cripple the economy that collapsed before the thieves could make a clean getaway.) As if Planned Obsolescence wasn't bad enough, the idea that (to pull an example from the cards): "Some Nokia phones allegedly sense when a 3rd-party battery is used and switch into a high-power mode so it runs out more quickly,*" will really get you wondering just what manufacturers are up to. Whether or not this is better than Panasonic's Lumix cameras, which, according to page 91, won't functional at all with 3rd party batteries is left up to the reader.

* I've found a couple of references to this, and it seems to trace back to Bruce Schneier's Beyond Fear.

Learning to Blame

I started listening to a radio program on the debate about teachers and teacher performance and I was struck by something that the teacher accountability crusaders said - that poor teachers blame the students for their failure to learn.

At the school where he taught, Pinder says many teachers just sat around the teachers' lounge blaming the students. They said the kids were too far behind; too messed up to be helped.
This stood out for me because my mother used to be a teacher - while she had done other things before that, I have no recollection of her being anything other than an educator. When I was in my mid-twenties, I was a childcare worker, first in a residential treatment facility for children who had been taken out of their families' homes for abuse or neglect and didn't need psychiatric hospitalization, but weren't ready for foster care, and later as a foster care case worker. This was as close as my mother and I ever came professionally, and it gave us the chance to talk shop, as it were. (There was also the time that my mother came to visit me at work - One of the children complained to her, "Your son is mean." "Sorry," Mother replied, with a slight smile. "He's your problem now.")

When Mother would complain to me about things in her classroom, she NEVER laid blame at the feet of a student, even if she would wearily recount all of the disruptions that a particular student would cause. But sometimes, she would talk about what she understood of the child's home life, and how that worked against what she was attempting to do, and her efforts to work around it. She never wanted for better students - what she wanted were more engaged and involved PARENTS.

And that seems to be missing in today's debate about teachers. I don't know that I buy into the idea, which some of the advocates for greater teacher accountability seem to put forth, that no matter what the parents might be doing, a good enough teacher will make up for that, and inspire students to rise to their full potential.
We, as the adults in this system, have not only the ability, but the obligation to make sure that kids overcome every single obstacle that's in front of them to ensure that they can achieve at the highest levels.
Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools.
Perhaps all of the teachers that I had should have been fired, but I don't think that I would have done anywhere near as well in school as I did, if my parents had chosen to simply walk away from any involvement with my education. Of course, goes the argument, parents would never do that. From my own experience, I would beg to differ. But then, I'm not telling parents that if they just follow my line, their children will all be geniuses - so I have no real incentive to let them completely off the hook, and assume that no matter what it is they might be doing, it must be what's educationally best for their child(ren). I'm not offering an easy way out through shifting all the blame.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Me! Me! Look at ME!

More evidence that even men of the cloth can take a page from the Shock Jock Bible. The Dove World Outreach Center, a small Christian outfit in Florida has sparked international yammering with their oh-so-edgy plan to burn copies of the Koran on September 11th. It seems that when publishing a book called "Islam is of the Devil" didn't get them enough bookings on national news programs, the fifty or so genius minds at DWOC decided to up the ante. It took a bit, but now it's working - people are getting into a tizzy over a small busload of crazies. If even an armed right-wing militia group (named Right Wing Extreme, no less) can figure out that setting copies Koran on fire doesn't do anything to advance any reasonable cause of Christianity, everyone else should be able to figure out that they're being played by a bunch of attention seeking fruitnobs.

We'll see if Westboro Baptist Church decides to see that bet and raise.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Guilty All Around

Over on Slate today, William Saletan over-argues that a national backlash against Islam is brewing due to so many politicians piling onto the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy.

Rachael Larimore, perhaps the token conservative of the XX team, poses the following question: "So, if the people complaining about the mosque are inciting isolated acts of violence, does that mean Al Gore is responsible for the gunman [at] the Discovery Channel?" It's a common question - one that we often find people asking after accusations or insinuations of incitement. The obvious answer is supposed to be "no," at which point the rebuttal comes back, "Well, if so-and-so isn't responsible for violent act X, how can my guy be responsible for violent act Y?" The idea is simple, looking for a means of getting your person off the hook by threatening to not go down alone. But let's turn that logic on its head for a moment.

Let's say the answer to Ms. Larimore's question is, "Yes. Al Gore IS responsible for James Lee taking people hostage at the Discovery Channel headquarters." Now, I suspect that in order to say that, we'll have to make a couple of assumptions, so let's go ahead and make them, even though we know that they're false (given that I'm making them up right now). The first is that sometime in his public speeches on the environment, Mr. Gore said something that could be reasonably construed as advocating violence as a means of achieving the end of environmental protection. The second is that he intended, or at least knew, that someone would take him up on that. (I'm dropping the "should have known" language that normally goes along with such things because I find it too vague to be useful.)

Okay. Where does that leave us? With Al Gore possibly having committed a crime. Given our assumptions above, if they could be proven, it's unlikely that the former vice president could make a valid First Amendment case. (Take this with a large lick of salt. I'm not, after all, a constitutional lawyer.) So, having (spuriously) established all of this, let's go back to the question that Ms. Larimore poses and pick up the train of logic. Now, her question is basically in response to Mr. Saletan's conclusion that recent violence that we're seeing against Muslims and suspected (or, more accurately, misidentified) "Muslims" in the United States can be traced back, at least indirectly, to all of the rather public calls from political figures to put an end to the Cordoba House project in New York, and the general hostility to Islam that appears to be a part of such calls.

So now we have multiple instances of political figures, from the left and the right, using the bully pulpit in ways that have lead to people being injured and killed. The correct answer is to throw the book at all of them, but the fact that no-one fingered Al Gore doesn't mean that people now should receive a pass. After all, we understand that there are people in the world, who have done very bad things and were never punished for them. But you're very unlikely to find a jury that would let someone go based on the idea that as long as other people remain unpunished, they should, too.

In other words we're back to that old saying that our parents drilled into our heads in grade school: Two wrongs don't make a right.