Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Traffic Troubles

So while I was coming home from work today, traffic exiting the expressway was nearly at a standstill. My first thought was that a motorist was having car trouble - their vehicle had stalled out or a tire had gone flat on the off-ramp. As it turns out, it seems that an automobile was having motorist trouble.

From what I was told, the driver suffered from MS (I presume he was referring to multiple sclerosis), and lost consciousness while driving. I don't know much about MS, but it wouldn't have occurred to me that you could drive with the condition. Perhaps this is because most of the times when we see people suffering from the condition, its for fund-raising purposes, and therefore there is an incentive to portray sufferers in a way designed to trigger pity and giving. I, for my part, was under the impression that people with MS couldn't even walk, let alone manage a vehicle under normal circumstances.

Woodinville fire and rescue on the scene.
The pickup truck went down an incline into a small ravine (I'm not sure that's quite the right word for it). The driver and his wife were both injured, but were taken out of the vehicle by Woodinville, WA fire and rescue personnel and taken to the hospital without very much trouble. It seems like the most difficult part of it was pulling them back up to street level. I'm presuming that one or both of them were able to speak to rescue personnel, which is how people on the scene had the story of what happened.

The scene of the accident.If you look just below and to the right of the sandbags, you can see a tire mark where one of the truck's tires struck the curb. The truck then took out the sign for our apartment complex that the sandbags had anchored in place; it wound up on the other side of the exit. Just before the stop line, there is a mark in the pavement where the truck bottomed out. Just beyond that, it took a chunk out of the curb, and you can see two more tire marks. According to witnesses, the truck then went airborne, and effectively climbed the guardrail, taking out the stop sign in the process. The guardrail fared somewhat better, but it will likely need replacing.

It then shot through the gap in the small tree and the light post, and traveled down the incline, coming to rest at the bottom.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Lessons Unlearned

Watching the United States side make the same mistakes over and over again throughout the World Cup (Do these guys understand what the word defense means?), I wonder if it isn't a metaphor for the nation as a whole.

Sometimes I feel that we make the same mistakes over and over again, refusing to take accountability for things constantly blowing up in our faces. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, perhaps the whole country has gone crazy.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Do It My Way

Activists make for poor negotiators. They also make for poor partners to negotiators, as delegates to International Whaling Commission talks are finding out. If you've ever tried to compromise with someone who feels that they have objective Right on their side, I suspect you're familiar with the problem. It's like haggling with a police officer. Agreeing to quit committing grand larceny in favor of petty theft is unlikely to get you anywhere - the officer is still going to arrest you. But the officer has the force of law behind him. All anti-whaling activists have is their love for creatures that they consider to be too majestic and intelligent to be eaten. It's not quite the same.

I suspect that unless the anti-whaling nations kick their activists to the curb, the organization is either a) going to remain a joke or b) become a club of nations that wring their hands about the activities of non-member nations. Australian environment minister Peter Garrett can say that the people of the world's voices against whaling needed to be heard all he wants - but I can hear someone's objections to my doing something, and even listen to them quite carefully - and then go and do it anyway. Worldwide direct democracy, where minority viewpoints are only allowed into the political arena at the sufferance of the majority, doesn't exist - and likely never will. For the simple reason that every group of people on Earth understands that as soon as they cede sovereignty to the populace at large, they place themselves at the mercy of others - who have often shown themselves willing to throw those not sufficiently like them under the bus for their own ends.

This isn't to say that EVERYTHING should be open to negotiations where both sides express a willingness to give something to get something. But if you're unwilling to compromise, you'd better be willing to use whatever means of coercion are at hand. That's why the police don't have to compromise - they can use force to subdue perpetrators if they need to (and sometimes when they don't, but that's for another time). Anti whaling activists are unlikely to get anyone to go to war, trade or shooting, to save the whales. Compromise is the only tool they have.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Punch Drunk

The Root ran a quick blog piece about a recent incident where a Seattle police officer punched a 17-year old girl in the face, while stopping her and another girl for jaywalking. Basically, an altercation started, and the police officer threw a punch. As one might expect, this has sparked a certain amount of controversy. But one of the things about the Root piece is the video it links to. From WTVD news – in Raleigh, North Carolina. Obviously because we don’t have television stations in the Seattle area that could show the footage (and all of it, at that). Or, I don’t know, maybe link to a local news outlet that covered the story?

I suspect that the reason the Root linked to the WTVD story is that the author lives in the Raleigh area, and that’s the television station that they watch. They saw a juicy story about a white policeman punching a black teenager, and it was stop the presses. But the WTVD story shows only a moment of the full video that was shot by the bystander, which is more than two minutes long, and in doing so, completely de-contextualizes the incident. This isn’t helpful journalism, especially when taking a moment to track down the actual video isn’t very hard. But perhaps more importantly it casts African-Americans as whiners who are willing to finely slice an incident to make themselves look good at the expense of the truth of the matter, and the media as listening to the loudest voices, and portraying only their side of the story. (On the other hand, it’s more or less ironclad that whenever you see your local area in the national news: “Oh, crap – what have we done now,” is rarely the wrong response.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Don't Touch That Child

Depending on how you go about it, it could be illegal for a stranger to attempt to help a lost child in Orange County, Florida. A fourteen year old was arrested for false imprisonment and the sheriff's office is pressing charges after the teen attempted to help a three year old girl find her mother in a store. There's been enough outrage over the actions of the sheriff's department in this case (although there does also seem to be a current of "what if" that supporters of the police are falling back on), so I'll let you go read about it yourself, if you're so inclined.

For my part, I'm going to take a little time to examine the implications of the way laws are written and applied.

The department defends its actions, saying the boy technically did commit the crime because he did not ask the mother’s permission to take the girl out of the store in search of the mother.
Let's parse that for a moment. According to the Orange County Sheriff's department, it's illegal to take a lost child to look for a parent unless a parent gives permission to do so. Thus, the legal thing to do when confronted with a lost child to leave, as anything that could construed as being in custody of the child could result in being charged. One of the few things I remember from my college criminal justice classes is that false imprisonment and kidnapping laws are very broad. So the question becomes: Is this really what we want? I understand the idea that extremism in the defense of children is not enough. But all it takes is a few high-profiles cases like this to create an environment where Good Samaritans decide that it's not worth the risk to intervene. My point isn't to create an apocalyptic straw man. It's unlikely that we're going to end up in some dystopian society where children are regularly injured or killed for lack of help because we've basically criminalized interactions with strangers. And even if we did, there are always going to be people who decline to ignore a child that might be in distress, despite the knowledge that they may be leaving themselves open to arrest and prosecution.

But when we create a legal regime in which laws are broad enough that it's possible to find a criminal action (regardless of intent) in anything that might be a little bit frightening, we, as Ben Rosenfeld put in in the San Fransisco Chronicle, "gradually exchange a rights-based system, in which governmental power is limited by law, for a paternalistic one, in which we may all be arrested for one thing or another, but authorities forebear from doing so, or intruding in our lives, until they subjectively brand us 'bad guys.'" The Orange County Sheriff's department apparently moved, in this case, to brand a fourteen year old as a "bad guy," as a way of saving face, deciding "he was in custody of the child and had no authority to be so," in the words of their spokesman. That applies to a lot of people, at one time or another.

Part of the reason why laws tend to be come so fine-grained that a minor failure of specificity suddenly blossoms into a major loophole is that power coupled with discretion is a recipe for not just corruption, but sheer, unadulterated inanity as well, aided and abetted by our collective unwillingness to take action on the part of the unsympathetic, unprivileged or simply unfamiliar until something utter ridiculous thrusts the situation into our faces, and then we-over react. We thus end up with a hodgepodge of laws, some remarkably broad, others maddeningly narrow, and no good way to navigate them well.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Happy are those who have learned that they shouldn't work at purchasing others' approval.

Happier still are those who don't need to work at purchasing their own.
Yes, it's banal. The sort of trivial wisdom that one finds on a bumper sticker (in type too small to be read unless you can stand near the vehicle in a parking lot). But I take a certain level of comfort in it, even as I struggle to reach it.

Such is the problem with seeking wisdom. It really is often the antithesis of everything we have learned in our lives. I remember how excited I was when I first really listened to the whispering, serpentine, polyphonic words of my Inner Critic and realized: "I know those voices." But that realization made it all the harder when I found that even that knowledge couldn't stop me from trying to placate them.

But I know the way. All I have to do is climb the mountain. Easy.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Who Let These Guys Play?

You know, it occurs to me that if South Africa was barred from participating in the World Cup for 20 years due to Apartheid, why are the North Koreans allowed to participate?

Maybe no one wanted them to miss out on suffering through the annoying swarm of bees sound of those blasted vuvuzelas.

It's Not In The Book

This is another one of those: "No... wait. Really?" sort of news pieces that you come across every so often.

It's often said that the United States is a very litigious society - people go to court at the drop of a hat, spurred by the hope of a jackpot at the end of a lawsuit against a deep-pocketed corporation or person. It's already more or less an article of faith that winning the lottery makes one a magnet for lawsuits. But less often spoken of is how we've also become a very legalistic society - more so when we think that we're on the correct side of the law - but still, we tend to follow the letter of the law to it's illogical conclusions.

[California s]tate law says that if spouses are convicted of murdering or attempting to murder their husband or wife, they are not entitled to reap any financial benefits during divorce proceedings. But if they hire someone else to do the dirty deed for them, their victims' assets are not protected.
Seriously? Someone looked at California state law, and said to themselves, "Well, when the legislature passed this law, they didn't specifically say that if you hire someone to kill your spouse and then your spouse divorces you, the fact that you tried to have them rubbed out should disqualify you from an automatic 50 percent share, so they obviously didn't intend for that to be the case." Actually, given the fact that a new state law is being written to close precisely this loophole, it seems that a LOT of someones, some with law degrees said the same thing.

If you ever want to set a stereotypical Conservative off, mentioning the words "judicial activism" should pretty much do it. But I don't think that even the most die-hard constructionist thinks that lumping people who tried to pay to kill a spouse with people who tried to do the deed themselves constitutes unacceptable legislating from the bench, if they've put even a moment's thought into it. But as long as we have a general legal culture that makes the quest for loopholes into a de facto legal system of its own, our laws are going to grow more and more cumbersome. And people will continue to make themselves rich finding, exploiting and/or closing the gap between letter and sensibility.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

It’s Not Our Fault

I’ve never been one to read memoirs. I suppose they’re interesting, but I rarely find myself drawn to mostly-autobiography. But, be that as it may, I decided to take a few minutes to read (and comment on) Marisa Meltzer’s review of Spent, a book about former model Avis Cardella's dealing with her self-diagnosed shopping addiction. (One wonders what drugs would be marketed for the treatment of Onimania, were it to be formally recognized.)

Late in the piece, Ms. Meltzer makes what strikes me as a curious criticism.

[Cardella's] very skilled at accepting the blame for her habits, but only barely hints at the underlying reasons we—women, typically, but men as well—are encouraged to buy things as comfort or to show status. Overall, she misses an opportunity to place her spending in a larger cultural context. She only briefly talks about the way credit-card companies prey on spenders, the ways glossy magazines manufacture desire, and the fad for luxury goods, instead pondering her own reasons for spending money.
I don’t see how this is a bad thing… (We should all be so skilled, I think.) Perhaps this isn’t what Ms. Meltzer meant to convey, but she seems to be critical of Spent for not casting Ms. Cardella and, by extension, the rest of us, as victims of yet another Hateful Conspiracy Against the Masses hatched by Big Money and designed to influence us to spend all of our hard-earned cash on meaningless frivolities and empty status signalers. It’s a common refrain, especially on the Left, that everyday people have little or no defense against the Dark Arts practiced by Madison Avenue and Wall Street and abetted by cupiditious neighbors and friends; and Ms. Meltzer seems disappointed that Cardella doesn’t parrot it in her book.

While it might be somehow comforting (although I most certainly don’t find it so) to think that we aren’t to blame for our impulse buys or unwise purchasing habits, the fact is that there is no coercion or subornment involved. Advertisers don’t send thugs to our homes to put guns to our heads and the credit card companies don’t have Orbital Mind Control Lasers (as much as they might want them). In nearly every circumstance, barring certain fraudulent practices, the hand that reaches into our pockets and pries open our wallets is our own, and even if you believe that strings are being pulled, it’s actually we who are the puppeteers.

Casting the idea that failing to indict people that, although easily unlikable, don’t bear the final responsibility for our decisions as a “missed opportunity” seems strange. Madison Avenue and Wall Street have both done some pretty heinous things in their pursuits of ever-greater profits. One would think that there are enough actual (if not always strictly literal) crimes to lay at their feet that one shouldn’t need to blame them for those that they didn’t commit. Perhaps it’s just my conservative side showing, but isn’t part of the idea behind beating an addiction owning up to the fact that one has a problem? I suspect that there is a reason that you won’t find the idea that liquor stores are to blame for alcoholism at an AA meeting. Shifting the blame has rarely been a viable strategy for self-improvement. And in a memoir, it seems that it would serve little purpose other than to allow the audience to avoid seeing themselves and their circumstances in the author’s life. And it seems that there is nothing more pointless than a cautionary tale that adopts as its moral that it’s all someone else’s fault.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Something For Everyone

There is, as I understand it, a subset of Utopian thinking, that centers around the idea that in a truly better world everyone gets something better than what they have now. This gets something of a bad rap. Which is unfortunate, because we could use more of it, especially in politics. There are people, on either side of the political spectrum who work to advance their chosen ideology out of a sincere belief that if the world was run their way, everyone would be better off. Now, you could debate that point with them, and if you happened to rest a different point along the continuum, you likely would, but you could still come away from the discussion with an understanding that, misguided or not, this person has everyone's best interests at heart. The flip side of this Utopian understanding of politics seems to be a steadily growing punitive approach - where one of the desired, (if not necessary) goals is the direct injury of those who disagree.

Again, this is not limited to any one ideology - both Liberals and Conservatives have fallen into the trap of wishing ill of those who have the temerity to not think like them. Of course, this isn't a new idea - the idea that one's political outlook is an objective truth, rather than a subjective understanding, has long bred the idea that there is no such thing as honest disagreement. And once you come to the conclusion that the people who are voting against you are acting out of ill intent, it's only a short step away from one's sense of fairness (also a concept that perhaps too many of us see as objective) demanding retribution.

But, as they say, down that road lies madness. As economic, social and other difficulties encourage Americans to turn on each other, the very unity of purpose which would be our greatest asset in solving those same problems erodes, and risks sparking a vicious cycle. To be sure, Americans have rarely been as unified as we like to think we are. It's difficult enough for a homogeneous nation to avoid division and factionalism - in a heterogeneous one, it's effectively impossible. But even with that, it's possible to understand that we're all in this together, and that hanging together is very much preferable to hanging separately.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


I caught part of a local government-oriented television show this morning. Think "This Week," but for a much smaller audience. The guests were a pair of lobbyists for different business interests. At one point the host asked what seemed to be a pretty straightforward question about some changes to the law that the business groups supported. And in return, he received a detailed recitation of a completely irrelevant talking point. He didn't seem to notice.

I figured that one of a few things was going on.

  1. He really didn't notice that the lobbyist hadn't bothered to even pretend to address the question.
  2. The question was a sham, pretty much simply an invitation for a detailed recitation of a talking point.
  3. Pressing the lobbyist on the question would have earned him a reputation as a hostile interviewer, and eventually, he would have found it difficult to book guests.
Of course, this isn't an exhaustive list, but these are the ones that occurred to me.

A suspect that 3 is closest to the correct answer, not only in this case, but in other instances as well. And that's something that we'll have to deal with as the public. As long as there are no consequences for blowing off any but the most supportive media outlets, we're going to have what appears to be a press that's subservient and fawning to powerful interests.


Yesterday, we went to see Utopia in Four Movements at SIFF. It's "live documentary." And it's interesting enough that if it comes to your town, it's worth a viewing. The scene from Incubus, where Marc (played by a young William Shatner) is trying to seduce Kia in Esperanto, is, by itself, worth the price of admission. But don't put yourself out for it. Despite what the filmmaker says, you could package up the voice-over narration and the soundtrack and put it out on DVD without missing too much. The movie doesn't have enough interactivity to really require the physical presence of the movie makers.

But that's neither here nor there. During the film, you are left with the idea that it's only the Left that has any interest in working towards a Utopian vision. Now, I've never read Thomas Moore, so I'm not really familiar with his vision, outside of what was said during the film. Sam Green tells us that two major components are everyone has a high standard of living and everyone has meaningful work. Now, I don't know at all what it means for work to be "meaningful," so I'm going to re-define that into everyone has productive and useful work (that is, everyone is creating a good or a service, and there is actually some benefit in that production, other than simply keeping the worker off the streets).

During the Q&A session after the movie, had a chance to query the filmmakers. My basic question was this: Most Utopias are based on the idea of collectivism - everyone working for the greater good, rather than their own. In situations like this, once self-interested people start coming to the party, things can go downhill pretty fast. So, I wanted to know, were there any Utopias that sought to make naked human self-interest into the engine? Then, if people wanted to work for the greater good - bonus! I was disappointed with the answers I received back, which were in a nutshell, the writings of Ayn Rand and the state of Montana. Perhaps it's just me, but neither of these seem particularly Utopian.

This, for me, raises a greater question. Why on Earth wouldn't the Right want to have a society where there was enough to go around, and everyone was productive? I understand that the Right isn't on board with collectivism, but shouldn't the collectivist impulses of Communism be viewed as a means, rather than an end? I came away with a feeling that there was a deep, and perhaps even deliberate, misunderstanding between Right and Left in this country. Surely, if you gave a Conservative the assignment to describe what they felt would lead to a society where everyone had meaningful work and a high standard of living, they would be willing and able give you an answer. (Personally, I suspect that answer would jettison the collectivism of previous attempts, while holding tight to the authoritarianism.)