Friday, July 30, 2010


In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. In the name of ... Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.
Anne Rice
This somewhat overwrought declaration isn't entirely correct, as it seems that the author is still a believer, but she has decided that she can't remain in the Roman Catholic Church in good conscience. There seems to be a lot of movement between different faiths, denominations and between being religious and being not. According to a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey from 2009, approximately half of the adults in the United States have changed religious affiliation at least once in their lives (although their overall sample size may be a bit small for that sweeping a claim). And Anne Rice is part of the general exodus away from Catholicism, which seems to losing members at nearly four time the rate it gains them. Like many of the ex-Catholics in the Pew survey, she realized (decided?) that she simply couldn't maintain a belief in the church's teachings.

The constant movement between faiths in the United States is interesting, if for no other reason than it demonstrates the continuing deterioration of "brand loyalty" to institutions in general. The overall consensus seems to be: "I know what I need, and I don't necessarily need you to help me get it." This could be bad news for churches, as well as other institutions whose primary currency is the size of their membership roster. But perhaps it is a call to change the way things are done. When I was a child, it was simply assumed that you went to a church with your parents, you dutifully listened to what the men at the pulpits had to say and you believed it. Asking questions, especially if you were persistent about it, wouldn't exactly get you into trouble, but it wasn't a recipe for being well-liked in religious circles (at least, until you were old enough that someone could try to recruit you without sparking controversy). The issue is, that low-level hostility to questions didn't make the questions go away - it just locked them in the closet until they could pick the lock.

I know a number of people from broadly divergent religious backgrounds, and they one thing they all have in common seems to be a basic inability to present their religion in such a way that it makes logical sense to someone who doesn't already believe it. Perhaps once that changes, the religious landscape will seem a little more firm.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Great Debate

Costco, the box-box retailer, has its own "lifestyle" magazine, The Costco Connection. One of the recurring features is "Informed Debate," where a yes-or-no question is asked, a couple of experts weigh in, and various Costco members offer their "man on the street" perspectives. There is then a survey form for readers to vote for a side, and offer comments, some of which are published in the next issue of the magazine.

July's debate question was: "Should it be harder to filibuster?" Perhaps predictably, the "expert" for the Yes side was Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the No side was represented by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). (One wonders if they would have been on different sides four years ago.) This was, in a way, too bad. It gave the question an air of direct partisanship that might have been avoided. The comments from others seemed similarly partisan, but with a twist on the No side - the idea that the system had been deliberately set up this way. One of the member on the street answers was:

Our forefathers got things right the first time, and we shouldn't be tinkering with a system that isn't broken.
Perhaps more direct was a writer in the August issue:
NO. The original framers of the Constitution got it right in the first place. Leave it the way they wrote it.
Sounds reasonable. Only one small problem. "[...]the Constitution does not contemplate the filibuster in any way, directly or indirectly."

Well. So much for "Informed Debate." Although I suppose it's simply an unfortunate side effect of the fact that so many of us get our information secondhand from sources that we trust and that often, we chose whether or not to trust a source on the basis of its agreement with what we already believe or wish to believe. And this is a difficult problem to get around. Not all of us have the time or the inclination to be Constitutional scholars and when you don't know yourself, you have to trust someone.

It seems that the cure for such things is a greater emphasis on and respect for doing the research. But I don't know how you get there. It's easy to say that we should have more respect for knowing what one is talking about, but that's likely to lead us back into an echo chamber, where people praise each other for agreeing with them. And people are often unwilling to credit as truly independent someone who doesn't share their view. And what do you do in a situation where the facts are in dispute or the topic is subjective? (Although in this case, the editors at The Costco Connection could have made clear that the filibuster is not a constitutional issue, but merely a rule of the Senate.)

This is going to be a solution a long time in coming.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Little Birdy Told Me

Okay. Here's a question. If you refuse to know who has provided you with a particular piece of information, how can you know that the information is accurate?

I understand the Wikileaks position - by taking steps to ensure that they can never definitively know who leaked something to them, they work to ensure that they cannot be forced to reveal that information. It's the ultimate in anonymous sourcing.

But it's not a new concept that just because a source is anonymous (ooooo... mystery...) and is telling you something that is really juicy, that doesn't mean that the information is accurate. And this, I think might be Wikileaks downfall in the end. Someone is going to get to their credibility by providing a "smoking gun" that seems like a real game-changer - and turns out to be completely fabricated. Now, I'm sure that in such a case, Julian Assange and company will be quick to use the "I was snookered/I'm the victim here" defenses that we've seen come out of the Sherrod case. The problem is that those excuses will likely not work any better for Wikileaks than they did for the NAACP and Andrew Breitbart; that is, anyone not already firmly in their camp is likely to see it as more self-serving than genuinely exculpatory.

But this also exposes a potential flaw in the way the Obama administration has reacted to the story, one that not everyone can be counted on to replicate. If a document cannot be authenticated, why treat it as if it is genuine? Of course, in this case, critics of administration policies are going to be quick to use the documents as ammunition, and they are unlikely to wait for the whole story to come out (see: Shirley Sherrod) - but that doesn't mean that it's wise to automatically treat everything as being on the up-and-up (noticing a pattern here...).

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Memo to the Administration and the NAACP

I learned this the hard way, back when I was in my twenties. It's plain from current news coverage that you haven't learned it, so please allow me to share it with you.

Any piece of information presented to you by someone who you know has a reason to deceive you should never be taken at face value or acted upon prior to be verified - regardless of how much you either want to believe it or fear that it may be true.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Democracy of Desperation

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation."
Henry David Thoreau
I think I was in high school when I first became acquainted with the concept of "quiet desperation." It is one of those terms that despite its ubiquity, actually appears to lack a single, commonly accepted definition. I've been wrestling with how to write about it for a while, mainly because I could never settle on what I thought that it was. But recently, it came to me, and I had a context in which to think about the issue.

There has been a lot of consternation on the American political Right recently about the specter of "Socialism." (I still submit that anyone who thinks that most Democratic politicians are Socialists is either deeply cynical or has never actually met a living, breathing, Socialist, but that's beside the point.) It's worth pointing out that if you take a tour through the governments of antiquity, you don't find much, if anything, that closely resembles modern Socialism, either the real thing or the hobgoblin that the Right has created. Socialism, as it was envisioned in the 19th and 20th centuries was a reaction to what had come before it, in much the same way as the Bill of Rights can be directly traced back to complaints with the way 18th century England operated. While there is current concern with the idea that Socialism might take over the United States, what's not talked about is the fact that just as before, it's a reaction.

People use representative democracy to "vote themselves a share of other people's stuff" because they feel it's the best way for them to get what they are after. Those people who feel that the majority should refrain from voting to redistribute wealth are effectively advocating that those people who feel themselves on the short end of the stick lead lives of quiet desperation - either through resigning themselves to working in a system that they understand doesn't return the desired, if any, benefits for them (or, at worst, is actively designed to expropriate what wealth they have for the benefit of those with more money than they) or by having the decency to starve somewhere out of sight and out of mind.

But this idea, that people have an obligation to look out for the interests of their "betters" rather than their own simply to avoid stepping on tradition, directly flies in the face of the very ideals that this nation was founded on. There is nothing in the Declaration of Independence or Constitution that enshrines Capitalism, for better or worse, as the economic system of the Republic. Majority rule WAS enshrined, specifically to avoid not just the tyranny of government, which so many people decry (often for seemingly trivial reasons), but also to avoid the tyranny of an entrenched ruling minority, that, having set up the machinery of the state to serve its own interests, was then hostile to reforms that would allow more people to share in the wealth. Americans have a difficult time grasping the idea that any historical events or circumstances that they weren't around to witness has any relevance, just as they have difficulty with the idea that they aren't objectively, if not the Best People on Earth, always counted among the Good Guys and always on the side of right. Both of these conspire to create a nation of people who, while they extol the men who founded it, can't understand that they run the risk of becoming the very people that the Founding Fathers declared themselves in rebellion against.

The way you avoid reducing the mass of men to leading lives of quiet desperation is through granting them the right to participate in their own governance. This forces the Powers That Be to ensure that the system they put in place works for enough people that they'll want it to stay in place. If we witness the demise of American Capitalism, it will be because those people that champion it forgot that they are not the only ones for whom it needs to have tangible and attainable benefits.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Well, If You Had Asked...

Despite the fact that banks are allegedly in stiff competition for new customers, and to hang on to the ones that they already have, "battling one another for market share," it's been said, it also seems that they expect people to do the work of making the bank work for them themselves.

After being slapped with a fee for depositing too much cash into their account in a single month (Yes, really. This is why I couldn't be a banker. There's no way on Earth that charging people for depositing actual cash in large amounts would ever have occurred to me.), Mark and Roberta Maxwell decided to switch from Chase to Musicians' Interguild Credit Union.

Chase's response - the Maxwells should have come to them.

"For example, the Maxwells could have increased the amount of cash they were allowed to deposit each month without incurring a fee to $10,000 or even $25,000 — if they had sat down with a Chase small-business specialist and discussed alternative types of deposit accounts, said Gary Kishner, a spokesman for Chase."
Maybe Chase should have reached out to the Maxwells instead. (It's also likely, given the current climate of banks seeking to raise fees, that the Chase small-business specialist would have simply lead them into a minefield of various fees, and that while they may have avoided to "depositing too-much cash" fee, there would have been another {or three} waiting in the wings.) Chase's attitude is the root of poor customer service - customers are there to provide profits for the business, rather than the business being there to provide value for the customers.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Objects in Motion...

Must be photographed the moment they decide to stand still.
Just a little bit longer... Gotcha!Because a moment later, they are gone.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Well, it seems that it's time for Blogger (Google, that is) to upgrade their "word verification" system for comments. While they tout it as cutting down on automated comment spam, it didn't take very long for "竹青" to get right through it to post a comment chock full of links to what I'd guess are random offshore pornography sites. (Maybe "损坏" would be a better name...) I'm betting that the overly simple captchas that Google uses are simply not up to the task of keeping out an automated script that reads and then enters the text, despite the claim that: "it takes a human being to read the word and pass this step." (See: Free.)

Anyway, such is the way of things. Spam is a headache, but it's not the end of the world. I find it interesting that the Windows Live Spaces version of this site hasn't collected any spam, despite my having left it alone since April. I suspect that Google should take that as a de facto endorsement of Blogger - the spammers seem to have come to the conclusion that WLS simply isn't worth trolling for suckers. Hmm... not a very ringing endorsement that, is it?

P.S.: According to Google translate, 竹青 means "incorruptible" (although that's not the Chinese text it gives me when I feed it incorruptible, and ask for a translation). Google translate also tells me that 损坏 means "corrupted." But Google translate is, sadly, not a particularly reliable translator.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Captcha Salesman

Okay. New theory to explain the random postings of comment spam here on Nobody in Particular. Well, any theory, really, since I don't think I really had one before. I still think that badly-concealed weblinks tacked onto Chinese text are only going to ensnare people so stupid that they've long been bilked out of whatever money the "businesses" at the end of the links hoped to get out of them.

So now I guessing that these guys are shills for a captcha (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) service. I'm pretty sure that if I turn on the captcha function on the comments section, the blog spam will die pretty quickly. This simply isn't a high enough traffic site for them to pay some dispossessed third-world dirt farmer to sit in an internet café, and try to hack whatever image appears.

I wonder what the commission rate is?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Call Today!

When I first saw these guys with their sign, my first thought was that a labor action was brewing, and so I was curious to see if they were getting much in the way of support. Labor unions aren't the most popular organizations in the world right now. (This, I think, is an interesting facet of American culture - when things really hit the fan, Americans quickly become resentful of people who they perceive - correctly or not - are not hurting as badly as they are.)
Shame on WalgreensBut it turns out that: "We are not urging any worker to refuse to work nor are we urging any supplier to refuse to deliver goods," according to the flier they gave me. The Carpenter's Union is calling on Walgreens to meet local labor standards in the places where it does construction work, which seems reasonable enough. Although I'll doubt they'll get much traction with this current protest campaign, since you wouldn't know what the issue was, or that the Carpenter's Union is calling for people to call the company (from the area code, I'm guessing they have a number for the corporate offices in Deerfield) and demand changes just from seeing the sign.

I also found it interesting that the sign (or the flier, for that matter) doesn't list a website for more information, which I figured would me more or less a requirement these days.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Conundrum of Choice

I've been trying, for a couple of days now, to sort out in my head what it means to have "meaningful choice." I've been told that I have it, and that I should be willing to sacrifice some of it in the name of helping people who don't, but I must admit to being unable to create a coherent theory of how to determine what it is. I can create narratives in my head around the idea of having meaningful choices, or lacking one, but most simply lead to stereotypical dilemmas, where of the options presented, none is positive or desirable. While I understand that the lesser of two evils is still evil, the difference between being between a run-of-the-mill rock and hard place and lacking meaningful choices seems to be a subjective matter of opinions, rather than a test that can be applied to everyday circumstances to determine which ones meet the bar.

Complicating matters is that I'm also told that I lack meaningful choices in some areas, and the only help for that is the people who do have the meaningful choices to, once again, sacrifice some of them, this time on my behalf. Here, the issue is less one of definition than it is of entitlement. While I understand that my individual vote doesn't count for much in the grand scheme of things, I have never expected that it would. Part of the downside of living in a nation founded on a variation on the idea of majority rule is that it can suck to be in the minority.

So I understand that my own choices are constrained, and in some cases lacking. I also understand that in some cases, the culprit is myself - I'm unwilling to do the work or spend the money or otherwise do what needs to be done to make certain choices realistic. To be trivial about, I know exactly what I'd like out of a new car. And while it's nothing fancy, it's been some time since that sort of vehicle was commonly available. Obtaining one, therefore, would entail some serious, if straightforward, customization work - more than I'm willing to pay for. So that choice is unavailable to me, unless and until I decide that it worth ponying up the cash for it. I could complain that the marketplace isn't meeting my needs, but since I've been okay doing without for the past decade, such a stance seems disingenuous.

Of course, there are people in the world who would give a lot if that were the extent of their problems with choice. And I realize that I am part of their problem, mainly due to the choices that I make in my own life. And that's where I always come back to. There are people whose choices are part of my problems. I don't know if I've been successful at it, but I have attempted to be okay with the fact that sometimes I'm the windshield and sometimes, I'm the bug, without descending into passivity about the whole thing. And that means exercising the choices that I do have in the best way possible, always looking to expand those choices, and, at the same time, not becoming hung up on the choices that I don't have. But I wonder if my philosophizing around the idea of choice has allowed me to become a greater obstacle to the choices of others than I know or intend. While I'm certainly not aiming to garner an "agent of oppression" cred for myself, sometimes a personal understanding that something isn't a problem makes you part of the problem.

I don't know if any of this constitutes meaningful choice or not. To the degree that I understand the perception lack of same to be a symptom of learned helplessness, I will admit that I might simply have yet to learn that I'm helpless. Or perhaps, to be bothered by it. I am a single person on an entire planet. I do not expect my choices to be able to have much of an effect on anything other than myself, and sometimes, even that is dicey. To say that the world, as I understand it, is capricious is to over-anthropomorphize it, I think, but I do view it as outside of my control and vastly more powerful than I. Therefore, I have difficulty seeing myself as capable of doing anything that cannot be undone within seconds by forces outside of my control. And that leaves me back at attempting to answer the question of what constitutes a meaningful choice. And wondering if I'm spending too much time questioning, when there are actions that need to be taken.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Free To Be Me

Long story short (for once). Photographer takes pictures of BP refinery. Police and BP security stop photographer. Police take sensitive information about photographer, and share it with BP security personnel. Story winds up in news. Online debate begins.

If someone else is harassed for something that you don't do, have any freedoms been infringed?

(Now for the long part.) I'm of the opinion that for many Americans, the answer is "no." And I suspect that as things go forward, that's going to be a greater and greater problem. It's already more or less an article of faith that for the United States as a whole, "Not my problem" is directly equal to "Not a problem." People are more or less expected to form themselves into cliques that will look out for each other at the expense of not only other cliques, but "the greater good" and even the law itself. And it doesn't take long for people to obligingly queue up as expected. The current immigration debate is an excellent example, but not the only one by a longshot.

It's hard for people to draw a distinction between what works for them and what simply works. Americans have difficulty seeing the lines between their lives and the lives of others. And, when they're feeling really ornery, may even refuse to acknowledge those distinctions when they are pointed out. I could give examples, but this will likely be long enough as it is, so I'll refrain. And besides, I'm sure you've met at least one person who fits the bill in your everyday life. And I'm sure that I won't be breaking new ground when I put all of this together and say that it can often be difficult for people to understand how other people feel a need to do things that they themselves don't need to do, instead categorizing them as (perhaps exaggerated) wants or desires.

Coupled with this is the new buzzphrase of the past nearly a decade, the remarkable piece of bullshit: "Freedom isn't free." (I'm calling it out as bullshit because NOTHING is free. Everything has a cost in one way or another. You may or may not be the one to pay that cost, but there is always a cost.) There are two primary factors to this War on Terror aphorism. The first is that our current freedom is under threat by a bunch of unhinged Islamist dirt farmers living in caves out in the middle of nowhere and the only way to prevent them from somehow killing and or subjugating 300 million people over thousands of miles is to a) fight counter-insurgency actions that seem to have done little more than trade casualties here for lots more casualties over there and b) be blindly deferential to the poor sods who signed up for military service. The second is that those of us who aren't out there being shot at in a foreign country should be willing to sacrifice unnecessary things in support of our necessary freedoms.

I'm tempted to say "combine all of things together and what you have is a willingness to sell other people's freedoms down the river in the name of combating one's own sense of fear," but to be honest, I think that I'd have the causality backwards if I went that route. I think that a willingness to sell other people's freedoms down the river has always been there. Doing so in the name of combating a specific threat is merely the most recent reason.

To go back to the debate about the MSNBC story that I started out with, those people who feel that the ability to photograph an oil refinery for a story about an oil company with a couple of really spectacular black marks on its safety record is an acceptable casualty of the War on Terror feel no need to have pictures of oil refineries. And they see no reason why anyone else needs them either. If a story about an oil company lacks any pictures of refineries, they're okay with that. And if someone gets into trouble for doing taking pictures, that's okay too. They're safe (or safe enough) in their surroundings. That's all that matters.

But, of course, we can slot any number of other activities into this debate, instead: ownership of guns, same-sex marriage (or inter-racial marriage, for that matter), accessing pornography, online privacy. And neither side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on wanting a right cherished by the other to be done away with. There's a poem about standing by and watching while other people's freedoms are taken away, and then realizing that when it's your turn, that there's no one willing to speak up for you. It's a classic, if not stereotypical (or even clichéd) cautionary tale. But it has the same limitations as every other cautionary tale. Mainly that it has no way of overcoming the sense that many people have that the rights they champion for themselves are universal and necessary, and those that others champion are parochial and optional. Mainly because, well, sometimes that is the case. Sometimes, people are of the opinion that their problems are everyone's problems, and in doing so, seek to elevate their own issues to the level of an all-encompassing crisis, and they're better off left to solve their own problems.

But that's a gamble. I'm not sure that the collective we has the wisdom to make that determination well, and I'm not going to bet on myself in that regard, either.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Rewrite the Past

"[Afghanistan] was a war of Obama's choosing. This is not something the United States has actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in."
Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele
When I was in college, most of the cafeteria workers were African-American. And, sad to say, many of them seemed, if you can picture this, woefully unqualified for their jobs. Personally, I suspect they simply resented being the de-facto wait staff for a bunch of kids 20 years their juniors, or simply the fact that they had dead-end jobs. Anyway, the students created a narrative to explain the poor performance and attitude of the food service, and given the generally anti-establishment (read: college administration) and paranoid bent of student body, it was predictably conspiratorial in nature. As the story went, the school administration had been sued for refusing to hire African-Americans, and forced to hire some. So they went out and hired the most incompetent people they could rope into taking the jobs, so that they could later point to their inability to do the work as a reason not to hire any more.

It seems that I must have gone to college with the folks on the selection committee for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, and they were paying attention to the school, if not necessarily in school.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


One of the favorite pastimes of both believers and atheists alike is cataloging the sins of those they believe are representative of the other camp. This, in turn, leads to the another of the favorite pastimes of both believers and atheists alike; defining away people that: a) don't fit their carefully constructed image of themselves and their group and b) might give ammunition to the other side. Feeling left out of the party, Ron Rosenbaum decides that now agnostics must get in on at least part of the act, and pens what might be the first ever bitter agnostic screed in history.

Supposedly, it's goal is to define agnosticism as "radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer." In reality, the piece seems to revel in the idea of calling Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens (recently diagnosed with cancer) out as haters, and atheism as "smug," fraudulently rebellious and a "credulous and childlike faith."

Now, I don't think that it's really going out on a limb to define some of the world's most strident atheists as angry polemicists. So it's hard to go wrong by defining yourself as being in opposition to them. And mocking "the brights" (Three words: Shoot. Fish. Barrel.) is likely always a crowd pleaser. But I don't know that simply going full bore after the most immoderate (and perhaps least savvy) elements of atheism is enough to cover for the fact that Rosenbaum is basically arguing that agnosticism should be defined as a steadfast refusal to have an opinion on the existence of deities in the name of denying the certainty of any statement that can't be backed up by "evidence which logically justifies that certainty." While he quotes Thomas Henry Huxley easily, he leaves it at that, rather than taking on what should be a central part of the manifesto - logically justifying certainty to whom? Or defining a logical justification of certainty himself, thus leaving the door open to willful ignorance to masquerade as "radical skepticism." But this is the problem with trying to form a coherent statement of belief around the ultimate statement of negativity - no matter which side you believe, you have no reason to believe, and any certainty you may have is nothing more than proof of cowardice and a simple mind. Where is the evidence which logically justifies such certainty?