Wednesday, December 29, 2010

And Then, There Were None

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 27, 2010

Robo Rumble

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

But apparently, somebody was thinking just that...

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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

That Time of Year Again

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

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

Monday, December 20, 2010

Nary A Problem

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

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

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

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Best. Comic Book. Ever.

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Change of Plans

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

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

For Starters...

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

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A New Leaf

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Eight Years

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

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

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

And Now, For a Moment of WTF?

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

Monday, December 6, 2010

Barbie Can See You Now

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

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

Friday, December 3, 2010

Growing Up

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Required Reading

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

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