Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Illusion of Authorship

I've been thinking recently about the idea of Determinism, and its conclusion that there is little or no actual Free Will in human thought and decision making. After a few hours of working the ideas around in my mind and on the page, I have come to a simple question. If Free Will is an illusion, what point does it serve to perceive it? Why would evolution drive humanity to create a complex enough brain to have a subjective feeling of authorship that isn't actually there? This is different from the Table Visual Illusion. There is a reason why the two shapes in the illusion are presented as tables. In the real world, the distance between the leading and trailing edges of the "long" table would be longer than the distance between the right and left edges of the "short" table, were you to actually measure them. And it is this reality that creates the illusion.

But the illusion of free will is not the misapplication of reality into a sphere where it doesn't belong. Sam Harris describes it as simply the human mind being mistaken as to the nature of its own experience. So... what's the point? What advantage is there to the default perception of one's experience being completely incorrect?

While I'm not sure that the answer is actually important, I do find it to be a compelling question, and one that would go a long way towards explaining the experience of consciousness, as I suspect that the two phenomena are related.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Before I Kill You, Mr. Chavez

This is awesome. President Hugo Chavez, while "thinking out loud," speculated that the United States had developed a secret technology that it was using to give Leftist South American leaders cancer. No, really. The BBC (and Chinese state television) says so.

What's great about this is that the United States has, in the mind of Hugo Chavez, completely crossed the line into cartoon villainy. We have super-advanced super-secret technology (check!), are implacably evil (check!) but can't seem to figure out how to do in the opposition (and check!). The only thing that's missing is the call from the Oval Office to gloat over how this evil plan is so utterly foolproof that soon the entire world will bow down before us! Haha! Haha! Bwahahahahahahahahaha! (Ahem... er, sorry.) After all, if we could secretly target world leaders for cancer, one would think that we'd come up with something that metastasized rapidly, and was more or less inoperable by the time you actually realized it was there. Or do the Scott Evil thing and just have someone shoot him. It's not like Chavez doesn't have other enemies or even criminals in Venezuela.

In a way, though, I'm kind of hoping that he's right. Not only would it be awesome to see President Obama kicking back with a monocle in one eye and stroking his white cat, but I've always wanted to sign up to be a henchman.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Time To Come Clean, Representative Paul

Well, damn.

There's a thing about buses. No matter how nice they are, the view from underneath them always sucks.

I get, Representative Paul, that the nasty newsletters of the Paleolibertarian days are a thing of the past. And I get that, in modern terms, the 1980s and early 90s are ancient history concurrent with the construction of the Pyramids at Giza. And I understand that in a republic, all segments of the voting public, no matter how repulsive, are entitled to representation. And on the flip side of that, I understand that when faced with political irrelevance, that it can make sense to reach out to those voters that are too toxic for the mainstream parties to openly associate themselves with.

But if you're going to publish a newsletter that traffics in "Confederacy- and Jim Crow-sympathizing, race-baiting and sometimes just plain racist" rhetoric, while also preaching a political philosophy that promotes personal responsibility, you have to know that at some point, you're going to have to own the words that you allowed to be published in your name, just like any of the rest of us would. People more familiar with you and with Paleolibertarianism have been quick to point out that it was likely people such as Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell who wrote the words that you're now on the hotseat for. Be that as it may, however, the buck, Representative Paul, stops with you. Being irritated with CNN, and their spinning of the story for their own purposes, doesn't change that. Neither does appearing on Fox News to talk about all of the things that you've done for African-Americans. It merely comes off as the political version of "some of my best friends are Black," which African-Americans are taught from childhood is the surest sign of someone who can't be trusted.

Like a number of other people, I had a reason to root for you in the primaries, despite not being a Republican myself. While I don't consider government to be an Evil in and of itself, I do think that it tends to become involved in too many things that are are better left alone, and to drag us into enterprises that we would have done well to stay away from. And don't get me started on the obnoxious alliance between Big Government and Big Business that has come to regard the public as useful only to the degree that it serves the interests of corporations. But as it stands, I need my credibility in the eyes of my family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers and myself more than I need to help you tilt at windmills.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Home For The Holidays

Ferries crisscrossing Puget Sound on a busy Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Boxed Happiness

"The debate between faith and reason is a false one. [...] We need both, of course. Only then can we lead fully rounded lives. And, yes, happier ones, too."
Eric Weiner "A Quest To Seek The Sublime In The Spiritual" Tuesday, 20 December, 2011
Why "of course?" As far as I'm concerned, I need faith like a fish needs a miniature castle with a plastic chest of "sunken treasure." I don't consider myself incompletely rounded or imperfectly happy. And, more to the point, after reading this article, I don't understand why "Questing," in an attempt to sincerely believe something that I currently consider to be mythical, will engender that consideration in me. We hear so much about the fact that "Surveys show religious people are happier than the secular," for one major reason - there are religious, spiritual (or whatever else you want to call them) people, like Mr. Weiner, who presume that it's a direct causal relationship, and as such, it legitimizes their belief structure and inculcates them against charges of delusion or lack of evidence. As his closing shows, there is a belief that a certain amount of happiness is locked up within faith as though it were a strongbox, and that only by making ourselves embrace the divine can we get at it. One would expect that of all people, "a former NPR correspondent" would understand that correlation does not equal causality. Were an ironclad study to find that religious people were an inch taller than the secular, you'd still be considered a fool to even consider the idea that finding faith would make you grow.

Despite the fact that many atheists have a habit of regarding other's faiths as being born of either primitive delusion or outright lies, they generally (but not always) do concede the point when they encounter genuinely happy people - even if they're convinced that such happiness is anchored on shaky ground. But as Mr. Weiner, perhaps unintentionally, points out, the faithful often have no such restriction, feeling free to denigrate the happiness of others as incomplete at best and illusory at worst, thinking that they can know the inner life of another simply through determining if that person has faith. And although it's common for people who seek out certain experiences to claim that "you just haven't lived until you've done [blank]," were they to sincerely claim that they only way to inner completeness and true happiness was the One True Path that they had determined, we'd normally find them insufferable, regardless of their sincerity or the genuineness of their concern.

I'm glad that when Mr. Weiner unlocked faith, he found happiness inside - far be it from me to ever begrudge someone else their joy. And I realize that for some people, finding religion does bring them happiness that they didn't have before. But that does not preclude the rest of us from finding extra happiness elsewhere, or (horrors!) even going our entire lives without needing it. Until someone can demonstrate a causal relationship, "truth is what works," as Weiner tells us that William James put it. And for me, what works is a life where each can seek their own path to a fully rounded, happy life.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

There's One In Every Crowd

Ah, yes.

Where would we be without the ever-present stereotype of the smug, urban, coast-living, pseudo-sophisticated, latte drinking atheist who lives for nothing more than to look down his nose at those cursed with the poor intellect to have faith in the divine. Thanks, Mr. Weiner. We really needed that.

But, of course, many stereotypes have a basis in truth, and it's not difficult to find a smug atheist who can't seem to go a day without reminding himself of how smart he is by putting down the beliefs of others. But you know what? It's not that hard to find believers who are of the opinion that faith and belief isn't enough. (Given the fact that if you profess to have no faith in any sort of divinity, you're liable to be outnumbered somewhere in the area of 10 or 20 to 1, in fact, it's pretty damn easy.) They have to be a dick to everyone who doesn't think like themselves. And it manifests itself in a myriad of ways, from the thinly disguised contempt that's passed off as concern or pity, to the opinion that anyone who claims a workable ethical code without recourse to the divine must either be lying or insane, to barely supressed glee at the thought of a vengeful, petty deity punishing someone - not for having done injury to others, but simply failing to be properly obsequious.

My point here isn't to get into the cataloging of sins. Given that there are always more than enough sins to go around, it's always a pointless exercise. It's merely to point out a simple fact of human nature. There are people who are secure enough in what they believe (or don't beleive) as the case may be that they aren't threatened by the fact that others believe differently. And there are people who aren't. Sure, you can make the point that what some people believe is dangerous to the well-being of others. And plenty of people on both sides of the debate make just that point. But if you're confronted with someone who genuinely believes that your beliefs justify you being injured, maimed or killed, it's going to take more than being even a grade-A dick to change their mind. And as for the people who just can't seem to get your facts straight? Have them send you an e-mail. That way they become just another of the millions of people who are wrong on the Internet every day.

In case I haven't already dropped a heavy enough anvil on your head, the world is full of dicks who can't stand to let others believe something different (or, if you must, wrong). Constantly pointing out the same set of dicks as a cheap way of making a point isn't helpful, even if you're convinced that all you're doing is pointing out your own dickery.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Democracy Constrained

Now - let's make one thing clear from the start. Rachel Maddow is supposed to be an intelligent and thoughtful person, so I don't know that she actually said this. Perhaps she did, but when I searched for it, I couldn't find an actual record of her saying it. After all, on the Internet, not only does anyone not know that you're a dog, but it's also easy to pass off unsourced statements as Gospel truth. So I'm going to leave Ms. Maddow out of this, and simply deal with the quote itself, as I was actually able to source someone saying it.
Here’s the funny things about rights — they’re not supposed to be voted on.
Iowa State Representative Bruce Hunter (D-Des Moines).
In any event, here, perhaps, is a better way of putting it:
Democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. Freedom comes from the recognition of certain rights which may not be taken, not even by a 99% vote.
Marvin Simkin.
Well, then that raises one rather important question. How does one protect rights, whatever one has decided that those rights are, in a democracy (either a direct democracy or a republic) when the entire structure of the system is set up to allow people to vote? You fall back on a certain baseline level of what is effectively authoritarianism.

In the United States, the governing authority is the Constitution. And despite common opinion to the contrary, some of its provisions and amendments are directly anti-democratic. Let's take the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Let's re-write the beginning, slightly:
The lawfully seated legislative representatives of the people of the United States shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Okay, so “the lawfully seated legislative representatives of the people of the United States” is a rather long-winded way of saying “Congress,” but isn't that what the Congress is? Without having gone through the exercise of amending the Constitution again, even a unanimous vote of Congress may not enact any measure into law that conflicts with the accepted understanding of the current text. (And given the fact that the “accepted understanding” is defined by the nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, you can see why there is often so much drama around the nominating and confirmation processes.)

The problem is that the text of the Constitution was, for the most part, composed and enacted some time back. Its most recent Amendment is 40 years old. Modern hot-button topics, like effectively enshrining certain Christian religious values into law, may have been around a long time, but the specific forms that they take today, like the fights over abortion and same-sex marriage are fairly recent developments. So, basically, they aren't specifically covered. And things that aren't covered ARE subject to being legislated, with a 50% +1 vote (well, depending on the specific rules in place, but you get the idea).

And that brings us back to the critically important idea of the (current) accepted understanding of the current text. Back in 1967, when the Supreme court decided Loving v. Virginia, Justice Potter Stewart noted that “it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor.” Now, in the closing days of 2011, are we moving closer to an understanding that “it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the sexual orientation of the actor?” Some suspect that there might be, hence the ridiculous theatrics around a “Defense of Marriage” Amendment. (Although the Amendment idea was ostensibly floated specifically to head off such a reading of the Constitution, it's pretty clear that it was designed mainly to throw a bone to religious conservatives who, in the words of Ellen Willis “feel that their faith is trivialized and their true selves compromised by a society that will not give [their] religious imperatives special weight.”)

Given the structure of our government and our population, Constitutional amendments designed to enshrine controversial values are unlikely to get anywhere. Even if they do make it out of Congress and out to the states, the proper minority of state legislative votes will likely be incredibly difficult to assemble. As a result, a certain level of krytocracy (rule by the Judiciary) is likely to result. And it becomes the values and rights that a majority of those Justices believe in, and can plausibly justify within the structure of the Constitution, that become inoculated against the votes of the 99%.

Footnote — No, Simkin was NOT quoting Benjamin Franklin - there is no record of Franklin ever having said or written such a thing. Which makes sense. After all, Benjamin Franklin was supposed to be an intelligent and thoughtful person, and the version of the quote attributed to him: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote,” while it may be dear to libertarian gun-rights advocates, is merely a recipe for an anarchy in which any aggrieved minority takes up arms when it loses an electoral contest.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I Guess It Beats "Mission Accomplished"

We've handily defeated the Iraqi Army in a rout, taken Baghdad and made it look easy. Bring the troops home now?

We've dismantled the Iraqi government and consigned Baathists to unemployment or insurgency. Bring the troops home now?
We've scoured the country for Weapons of Mass Destruction and found exactly jack squat. Bring the troops home now?
We've captured ex-President Saddam Hussein and allowed the new government to hastily execute him. Bring the troops home now?
We have a new President here in the United States, who thought this whole enterprise was a bad idea to begin with. Bring the troops home now?
We've propped up a government that barely has the support of the people and can't manage to secure basic services or security. Bring the troops home now?
We've established a diplomatic presence in Iraq that's roughly half the size of Liechtenstein (no, really). Bring the troops home now?
Well, while we're there, the Iraqi government now insists that we be subject to the same laws that its own police and military are, while we operate on their soil.
Victory! Tell the troops to start packing.

Monday, December 12, 2011

They Proclaimed the Emperor Had No Clothes

Perhaps it's just the side of me that's sensitive to the ways in which we disrespect one another, but when many people say (or write) those words I detect an undercurrent of judgment - "That Emperor thinks that he's such hot stuff, but he's too stupid to realize that he's naked! And people won't be honest with him because they're afraid of being executed! What a jerk!" Of course, attribution is always a dangerous game, and so it's quite likely that many people don't mean to critique "power" in the way that I take them to.

For myself, when I read the tale, I come away with a different feeling. Once closer to this Hillary Price Rhymes With Orange cartoon. I feel for the character of the Emperor because he's never portrayed as an evil man, just vain and more sadly, insecure. The two quick-witted swindlers realized that and played the Emperor, and those around him, like fiddles. Fairy tales can get away with things that would never fly in any other medium of storytelling, and the populating of an entire capital city with people who deep down suspect that they're actually frauds seems like one of those things. But I wonder if it isn't more true that we know.

This came up in the context of my asking what Occupy Wall Street had done to make people hate them so, and while I'm not sure their crime is pointing out the Emperor's nakedness, I do think that OWS had taken on the role of the boy in the crowd and threatened people with fraudulence, even if they didn't intend to do so. When you're attempting to rouse a populace to rebellion, your primary target is always their sense of Hope. People do not lay their lives on the line lightly, and if you're going to motivate them to risk everything they have, it's easier once you've convinced them that not only do they have nothing, but they have scant chance of ever getting anything. In this, I think that OWS misses the mark, and that in seeking to undermine people's hopes, they are instead, for some people, undermining their sense of Legitimacy, always a much more dangerous proposition.

I do not know that Occupy Wall Street set out to tell people that they are not as capable as they believe themselves - that instead, they are simply the beneficiaries of a wicked system of governance that masquerades as enlightened, and that in a "just" world, it would be they who lived lives of quiet desperation. Or if they are poor, that their lack of skills, brains or resources will condemn them to remain that way for life. The Emperor's chief failing was that he feared to be revealed as someone "unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid." And even at the end of the story, he feared to be called out as having been gulled through his own insecurities. Better, he and his nobles reasoned, to keep up the charade, even once the townsfolk, having lost their fear of the "magnificent fabrics'" powers to label them fools, proclaimed the truth.

Of course the simple answer, accept yourself for yourself, no matter who that turns out to be, is so facile as to be worthless. Were it so easy, many more people would have done it by now. Accept others for themselves, no matter who they turn out to be doesn't seem to be any more workable. So I am unsure of the solution to the potential problem that I have identified. Perhaps there isn't one. It's something that has escaped most of mankind of millenia - it's possible that it's simply my own hubris that leads me to think that I could find one. But, I'm a fool that way. And I'm okay with that, so I'll keep looking. And I if do it right, I'll learn to have no fear of what I find.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why You Hatin'?

In the name of full disclosure, I have to admit that when people speak of Occupy Wall Street (or Occupy anywhere else for that matter) as if it were the second coming of Democracy and Enlightenment, I simply roll my eyes. I'm of the opinion that mass protests are the last resort of the politically powerless, and I don't see many of the OWS protesters falling into that category. (Now, if you recall the big pro-immigration from Latin America rallies of some years back - there were a lot of people who, because non-citizens don't get a vote, were effectively politically powerless within the current system.) Perhaps more importantly, I don't see myself as politically powerless, so I'd rather go vote than camp out somewhere.

Before you start - you're correct. My one vote doesn't make a difference in the grand scheme of things. But, by the same token, standing my sorry ass out in the cold with a sign by myself wouldn't make a difference either. Both voting and protests benefit from numbers.

But I really, really, REALLY don't get the Occupy Wall Street Hate Machine that's sprung up. Okay, so there are some yahoos out there holding signs extolling the virtues of getting high. And I'm not sure that all of these guys really understand the distinction between "civil disobedience" and "only laws that I agree with should apply to me." But is that really a reason to hate on these guys like they killed an infant child?

We seem to be turning into a culture that erroneously believes that there is a single, self-evident Truth out there and that you can measure a person's morality by how well they hew to it. But things are rarely as self-evident as we like to think they are.

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.
- A guy who, for the most part, was perfectly willing to buy and sell his fellow men and force them to work for him.
A lot of this is a side-effect of the simple fact that many of us can't tell the difference between our own aesthetic judgments and objective facts. In English "I consider that fair" and "that's fair" are considered synonymous phrasings, even though if you parse them literally, they're really quite different. I'm also of the suspicion that many of us base our world-views on the idea that our aesthetic judgments ARE objective facts, and when someone comes along who clearly rejects those judgments, the possibility that they may be correct in doing so quickly morphs from a difference of experience to an existential threat.

It's past time that we came to the understanding that in a nation of 300+ million people, with origins on literally every part of the planet, we're not going to find a one-size fits all answer to things. Many of the judgments that we make and apply to things - like generous, fair, just, funny, beautiful or moral are quite subjective, and different people are going to see them differently.

Seeing the Light

We've all heard about how incandescent light-bulbs are energy-inefficient, mainly because they turn a significant amount of electricity into heat, rather than light. (Which is why you could use one to power and Easy-Bake Oven.) Compact fluorescent lights were supposed to be more energy-efficient and longer-lasting. So even though they cost more than regular lightbulbs, you'd make the investment back over time with the savings to one's electric bill. Being cheap, I figured I'd give it a try. Verdict thus far? Bogus. The compact fluorescents aren't as long-lasting as the incandescent bulbs.

Most of this is just anecdotal - I'm starting to re-replace compact fluorescent bulbs. But thus far, it looks like the potential 7-year lifespan that was advertised for the compact fluorescents isn't going to be realized. But I do have one controlled experiment, as it were - the dining room table. The fixture above the table holds three bulbs. When we moved in, all three sockets had incandescent bulbs in them. (In fact, every light socket in the apartment had an incandescent bulb.) When bulb one went out, I replaced it with a compact fluorescent. The same with bulb two. Last week, bulb one went out again. Bulb three, the last of the incandescent bulbs, is still shining. It was a similar situation in one of the bedrooms, where the bulbs are two to a fixture - I just replaced the second incandescent bulb in the fixture when the fluorescent bulb that had replaced the first one went out.

I'm hoping that I just wound up with a bad batch of light bulbs, and that normally, compact florescents will last as long as advertised. The environmental movement has enough problems without fluorescent light bulbs simply being a more expensive way to light your home.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Show Me the Money

At the behest of our local public radio station, I spent some time monkeying around with the League of Education Voters budget calculator for Washington state.

It's a simple enough little widget. You have to plug a 1.7 billion dollar hole in the Washington state budget buy clicking a series of check boxes to either cut some program or another or raise tax revenue. As with most things, there's an easy way, and a hard way. The easy way to win this particular budget battle is to simply select the option for the "Income tax for high earners, paired with reduced property tax rates," option and hey presto! problem solved. And the best thing about it is that unless you're pulling down somewhere in the area of 200 grand a year (or double that between you and a spouse) not only does it not cost you a thing, but your property taxes might even go down! Brilliant!

But it's not my personal cup of tea, so I instead jacked up sales taxes to raise about the first billion dollars, moved closer to the goal by eliminating a sales tax exemption on trade-ins and then went hunting through state programs to make up the rest. And that's when things became dicey. Mainly because with any situation like this, in the end, the only question that matters is "Who pays?" And as far as I'm concerned, the best answer is always "All of us." Of course, because of the ways that government programs are structured, "all of us" is easier said than done. In the end, I think I created a plan designed to elicit howls of "outrage" from people along all points of the political spectrum, which means that it would never make it out of committee.

It was an interesting exercise, even if it felt somewhat skewed to the left (no surprises there). I suspect that everyone should try something like this, if only for the general overview of the sorts of things that money is being spent on.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Oh, Now I Get It

Tout comprendre rend très-indulgent.
"To know all is to forgive all."
Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein. Corinne, Book 18, chapter 5.
Otherwise (mis)translated as "to understand all is to forgive all" or "to understand everything is to forgive everything" has become something of a pejorative in American discourse, with many people taking it to mean that if you understand why someone did something you must also excuse their behavior. Politically (and in other contexts) it manifests itself as the idea that anyone who can understand a position well enough to articulate it to others must be a de-facto supporter of said position. (Some academics are spared this, but it tends to be common in the public.) The sad side effect of this is that ignorance becomes a virtue when dealing with people one disagrees with. Although given the human tendency to want to be around like-minded people, perhaps it's more accurate to say that it lends legitimacy to the long-standing idea of virtuous ignorance.

Personally, I don't get it. Having recently had something of an epiphany that gives me a better understanding of libertarian/anarcho-capitalist economic and social policy thought, I find it much easier to compare and contrast with other philosophies that I understand.

But I guess in the eyes of a partisan, this simply makes me too wishy-washy to be reliable.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Man With A Plan

I wonder: Did Herman Cain really think that he could have won the Republican nomination for President? Before he started climbing in the polls and making the other candidates play his game due to his 9-9-9 plan (which he had to start amending almost immediately), he had been widely regarded as a somewhere between a novelty candidate and a huckster, his eccentricities portrayed as bizarre and off-putting rather than folksy or endearing. About the best thing that people had to say about him was that he was a political unknown who was either promoting his book or angling for a job as a pundit.

He was, in effect, simply another version of Sarah Palin.

But then suddenly, he started to take off. Although "take off" might be too strong a term - "took his turn as the alternative to Mitt Romney" is perhaps a more accurate description. (If you've had anything nasty to say about "liberals" or President Obama that has seen print or been posted on YouTube watch the polls - you might be next.) To hear people tell it, Cain planned it that way. But I'm starting to think he had a different plan.

If you want everyone in the nation to be deeply interested in your business, it's hard to beat running for President. Dating a Kardashian might get you there (regardless of your gender), but then again, that sort of obvious public-attention whoring might just have the opposite effect, as people do their best to avoid your mug staring at them from every gossip magazine in a five-county radius. But suffice it to say that if you run for President, that time that you kyped a Butterfinger bar from the corner store when you were 7 will become the focus of intense national interest. And while Herman Cain actually managed to put on a remarkably good clown act (one worthy, perhaps, of an Academy Award), it's unlikely that he was really so oblivious as to think that his past "indiscretions" would stay a secret forever. But it also occurs to me that perhaps it was unlikely that he was really so oblivious as to think that he had a better-than-even shot at the Republican nomination.

And that's where the clever bit comes in. Cain may just have been bright enough to realize that his past coming to light would give him an "out," once it became clear that he was going to be unable to win the nomination - an escape hatch, as it were. This spared him the fate that has befallen other presidential candidates before him - unlikely to win, but without a graceful means to exit the race. I'm not sure that he would have intended it to get this far out of control - but just because a plan works doesn't always mean it works 100%. Of course, this is all conjecture on my part, and it assumes both that Herman Cain is crazy like a fox and unserious about his Presidential aspirations all along. But stranger things have happened.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

State of Denial

I found out recently from my aunt that my great-aunt, my late paternal grandmother's sister, had died. Cause of death - a knife in a lung. She'd held on for three weeks before succumbing to the wound. I'd met my great-aunt at family reunions and the like, but these were the few and far between events of my childhood, the most recent being when I was in high school if not sooner. Every one of them had been populated by strangers, as I could never remember the members of my extended family, and I didn't have enough in common with them to form bonds that would bolster my memory. So my great-aunt, like her husband, my father's uncle, were little more than a name that occasionally came up in conversation.

One thing that was never associated with those names was domestic violence. And I, being a bit to old to still be a n00b, know full well that my father's uncle didn't just go from being a mild-mannered guy to a murderer at the drop of a hat. My aunt confirmed my suspicions that this was a story that had been going on for a while. It was the sort of open secret that everyone in my father's generation knew about - it was only those of us in the under-50 set who were in the dark about it. My aunt also confirmed the other simple conclusion that I'd come to - that my great-aunt had gone to her death believing that somehow, she'd be able to change the man she was convinced loved her, despite the abuse. And that her, my father, my other aunts and uncles, any number of family members, they'd close their eyes to the possibility that this could happen, and did so until it finally intruded on them.

But it's easy to see denial in others. Much harder to see it in oneself. And so I find myself asking: when do I see unreality, hear unreality or speak unreality? What part of my life looks over my shoulder and mocks me, because I refuse to acknowledge its presence? And what am I risking in doing so? I find it difficult to credit the idea that I might be going to my grave because I can't bring myself to see the world as it really is, but my great-aunt didn't believe it, either. How does one come to see what you've structured your life around not seeing?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Holiday Habits

Well, another Black Friday (and most of a Gray Saturday) has come and gone. Pepper spray to be the first in line for an X-Box, huh? Well, you have to give them points for originality.

It's easy to fall into sanctimony over the unthinking consumerism that Black Friday both manages to represent and self-parody every year, but it's worth keeping in mind that unthinking non-consumerism will have some pretty serious economic consequences of its own - most of us don't make anything that qualifies as a necessity, except in the fact that it might have acquired enough First-World ubiquity that we "don't know how to live without it." (This despite the fact that we got by perfectly well for a very long time - as late as when I was in high school, if you told someone that you wanted to be a Web Designer, they would have likely quipped that the spiders were managing perfectly well on their own.)

So perhaps the moral of the story that we keep missing every year is that we need more thinking consumerism. It's nice to be enough of an aesthetic that you can sneer down your nose at someone who camps out for a week to get a cheap DVD player. But most of us don't think about what we'd say to the guy who needed to make those DVD players to feed his family. "Take up small-scale intensive farming," isn't helpful, it's glib; those skills are fairly rare and it's easy to screw it up.

In the constant race to have the best hand at Misery Poker, we spend a lot of time claiming that the people with all of the money twisted our arms, but the simple fact is that we made this bed for ourselves and we can make a new one. But, as the saying goes, "In economics, there are no solutions, only trade-offs," so until a better way is really worth something to us, there isn't going to be one.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

An Occupy of One's Own

In local news, Occupy Seattle has gone to court to fight for the right to stay camped out on the Seattle Central Community College campus. With a few high-profile evictions of Occupy activists making front-page news, the back and forth over the movement is picking up steam. Interestingly, here in Seattle, the argument doesn't really seem to be over whether or not Occupy Seattle has a right to camp out - "A permitted City Hall site where limited camping is allowed has been mostly vacant for two months," according to the Times, but whether or not they should be allowed to camp where they want, regardless of any other rules.

With all of the focus on Occupy Seattle and the greater Occupy Wall Street movement, of which it is a part, it's perhaps become too easy to forget that the students, activists and their allies that make up the local Occupy branch aren't the only people who are spending time camping out, and looking for places to stay. In 2004, SHARE/WHEEL's Tent City 4 was created, and ever since, a small community of homeless adults has been living a nomadic existence, moving from one location within the Eastside of the Seattle suburban area to another, often in the face of rules deliberately adopted by local cities to keep them on the move, generally at the behest of citizens who had bought into a hysteria that cast the resident of the tent city as an out-of-control band of murderers, rapists and substance-abusers. With the passage of years, the hysteria, the tent city and the resident have all mostly been forgotten. Nowadays, a church or synagogue offering to host the encampment merits little more than a blog posting, and no-one bothers to comment. Tent City 3, which tends to move around inside Seattle still draws a little grief, but even that's mostly died down.

Of course, Occupy Seattle and the Tent Cities aren't really the same beast. The people in the Tent Cities aren't protesting their situation - simply attempting to make the best of it. They can't really afford to make a fuss over where they're staying, because if they lose the right to camp, they lose what passes for their homes, rather than mostly having to go back to their houses, apartments and dormitories. (Not to say that there aren't genuinely homeless people in Occupy Seattle, but I suspect that no-one in the Tent Cities has volunteered to be there.) And it's that disconnect that is of interest to me. Occupy Seattle can afford to push things farther because they have comparatively less at stake. And in doing so they can stay in the public eye, and thus in its consciousness.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Trying Times

I've never really cared for self-help gurus. In my personal opinion, they tend to offer pat answers to complicated questions. (Note, however, that I don't say that they're necessarily wrong answers...) I suspect that I'm simply not in the target demographic, being the sort that is suspicious of simple answers to complicated questions.

But my ex-girlfriend was a big fan of Anthony Robbins, and we spent a good deal of time watching his videos. Most of which drove me up the wall. But during one video, he said something that really resonated with me. The scenario was simple - a woman in the crowd was having some sort of difficulty with her husband, they'd come to a compromise and she said that she would try to hold up her end of the bargain. Robbins pounced. I'd expected him to go Yoda-esque on the woman, but after an amusing sequence (amusing to us, anyway - it was frustrating for the woman) where Robbins asked her to "try to pick up that chair," he let off the hook and got to the point. Rather than an variation of "there is no 'try', there is do or do not," he said that when we set out to "try" something that we don't feel we can actually accomplish, what we are often doing is putting in enough effort (or the appearance of enough effort) that we feel we can't be blamed for failure.

Back when the "Supercommittee" to tackle the budget deficit was formed, the first thought that crossed my mind was: "They'll try." I think that other people agreed with me. There was already chatter that Congress would simply break the "Sequestration" rules they'd created for themselves; the only question was would the Republicans manage to block Democratic attempts to halt cuts to social programs while restoring defense spending, or would all of the "automatic" cuts be voted out of existence.

Now, Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) one of the co-chairs of the Supercommittee, is one of my senators, and she's a nice enough lady. (Yes, I have actually met her face to face. Best $250 I've ever spent. My father was dead right - being a black person at a political fundraiser does make you one of the centers of attention.) But it takes more than being a nice person to break a budget impasse in Washington D.C., it takes someone who's willing to do what it takes to get the job done. And I could have told you from the start that Senator Murray was not that sort. Her job was to hold the line against Republican attempts to roll the Democrats yet again. If they reached a workable deal, so much the better. But the failure to reach a deal was seen as a better outcome than a bad deal, and so she tried. And so did everyone else. The fact that the finger-pointing started some time back is proof of that.

So what do we do now? Well, "we" do nothing. Anyone who thinks that the United States of America is unified in any meaningful way that doesn't involve chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and/or hating/scapegoating/killing people in some other part of the world who we can blame for our troubles is, in my not particularly humble opinion, a naif. Look at the TEA Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Okay, so they aren't exactly on the same page. But they at least share the common goal of reducing the perceived influence of moneyed interests in Washington. But if you put a dozen people from each side in a room, you'd get a cage match worthy of Pay-Per-View long before they decided to sit down and see if it was worth working together to elect people they felt better represented then nation as a whole.

We all know that the path we're on is unsustainable. Even the Republicans have (mostly) given up on the fantasy that we'll simply borrow billions of dollars and that we'll use it to magically create some super economic juggernaut that will create such a flood of prosperity that we'll be able to pay off the debt without anyone actually having to pay a dime more than they want to in taxes. We can't do what we are doing forever, and that means one of two things - reduced government services or increased government taxes. And in the end, those are really just variations on the same thing - a lower standard of living. You're either paying more to get the same amount, or you're paying the same amount to get less. Or you combine the two, and you're paying more and getting less. Either way, that's money that can't be spent on flat-screen televisions, new paint for the house, gasoline, food or clothing.

The issue, at this point, isn't whether we're going to see a decline in our standards of living (although something could happen to get us out of this - it's happened before) it's when does it start, how far does the decline go, and how much damage to we do to things in trying to mitigate it. If we want to limit the impact, we really only have one option - we have to actually work together. That doesn't mean looking for "compromises" that are thinly veiled attempts to screw over other constituencies. It means understanding that is this important enough to do something unprecedented in this country: putting aside our differences and being okay with the idea that someone might get something that we're entitled to or in need of. There is no more time for trying, shifting the blame can no longer be the goal. We have to do this. One wonders if we consider it important enough.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


On the Recieving End

We were talking about the police yesterday, when someone asked why more of them don't carry Tasers. The answer, as it was explained to us, is that to be Taser certified, you have to be tased, and a lot of police officers have conditions that prevent this.

But (assuming this is correct) there's a certain irony in that to be certified to carry a less-lethal weapon, you have to have it used on you, but this is not the case (for obvious reasons) with lethal weapons, and so it's easier for a police officer to have access to lethal force than non-lethal force.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Fall Leaves

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Rule of Seven Dumb Things

Every so often, you come across something that doesn't seem to be on the Internet, but really should be. This is one of them. I've made some slight edits, but this is pretty much the way I found it.

The Rule of Seven Dumb Things

Do one dumb thing, and you'll probably be fine. A little self-awareness goes a long way.

Do two dumb things at the same time, and you ought to be careful. But, the deity of your choice smiles on babes and fools, as the saying goes.

Do three dumb things, and you're venturing into difficult territory. Something will probably go wrong, your bruises may be noticeable and you'll need to retrace your steps.

Do four dumb things simultaneously, and you are virtually assured of injury or loss. It will not go unnoticed and you may gain a reputation as a lucky fool or for having cheated fate.

If you're doing five dumb things at the same time, you're going to be seriously injured and risk death. You will be rightly ridiculed by your friends and family while you recuperate. Death hit the snooze bar, but will be back for you after coffee.

Do six dumb things at once and you're going to die. You will draw a large crowd of hushed gawkers. Some might even say you deserved it, and chances are good your casket won't be open.

Do seven dumb things at the same time and you will become an instant posthumous legend. Your demise will be ensconced in college physics textbooks, the NFPA Fire Code and an AP "file photo." You name may become a verb and your descendants will deny their lineage.

Jon Espenshied (Adapted from an oral retelling by Bob McKenney, Chief Electrical Inspector for the City of Tacoma, Washington, for many years.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

He's Lucky It's "High-Tech"

Herman Cain has appropriated the term "high-tech lynching" from the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings to describe what he appears to be attempting to portray as a hateful conspiracy against him. In a very real sense, this represents incredible historical progress. By the time Cain was born, the extrajudicial "mob-justice" murders that comprised historical lynchings had declined into the single digits annually - and you could go for years between recognized incidents. Now, you can count the majority of the incidents that happened since Cain's birth on your fingers and toes, and we consider the practice to be entirely a relic of the distant past. While hate murders, like that of James Byrd, still take place, they are considered just that - murders, and the public aspect of historical lynchings is long gone. I'm middle-aged myself, and while I've heard lynching stories from my parents and grandparents, by the time I was born, the practice had died and seems just as before my time as calling cars "horseless carriages."

I dislike Misery Poker, and so this isn't going to be sob story about the injustice of it all. But it is worth noting that at least two of the women who have accused Mr. Cain of sexual harassment were white. Were this 1911, or even 1961, there would be nothing "high-tech" about what could have happened to him in the face of such accusations. Emmett Till, who died when Cain was nine years old and was only a teen himself, suffered abduction and a gruesome death for far, far less than what Cain stands accused of. And it could be argued that a practice beloved of more anarchic conservatives - jury nullification - played a part in allowing the murderers to walk scot-free. And that racial animosity is what allowed the acquitted, but guilty, men to feel secure in admitting what they had done in a magazine article. The rallying around Cain that many Republican voters have done would have been unthinkable, even considering that at the time, the Republicans were still considered the party of Lincoln. And it seems that many have decided that it the accusers who should be tried in the Court of Public Opinion, rather than having their word taken as Gospel, as it once would have been.

This isn't to say that there should be an uproar over Cain's use of the term lynching. Or that we've become heartless and callus for being able to use the word so lightly, even given the horrific history of the practice (which was not, by any stretch, confined to African-Americans). Just that we should remember, when we hear the phrase "high-tech lynching," that it's not just the "high-tech" prefix that makes the difference. What passes for a lynching these days would hardly have merited the term "persecution." And that we should all be very, very glad of that fact. Especially Herman Cain.


No one ever has a burden of proof to explain why they believe as they do. That is between them and the Universe, no matter how loud and obnoxious they are about it. Whenever anyone says to you: "If you want my respect, you must explain to me, to my satisfaction, why you believe as you do," simply walk away. That's a fool's game, with no way to win, and you're unlikely to earn anything for the effort of playing.

But the moment that someone asks another to believe and or to behave as they do, THEN they acquire a burden of proof. If someone says to you: "Your way of looking at and interacting with the world is incorrect, and mine is the path that you must follow," then you are more than justified in requiring that they explain to you just why what they do and believe is rational and useful, and just why it serves your purposes for you to do as they would have you. Anyone whose worldview is constructed in such a way that it requires others to follow it should either become very well versed in the finer points of persuasion and negotiation, or should find a more durable worldview.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


A lot has been made of Joe Paterno's failure to live up to his "moral obligations" in the midst of the Pennsylvania State child sexual abuse scandal. Which raises this interesting point: Had Paterno's superiors followed up back in 2002, we wouldn't be having this discussion even though Paterno's actions would have been the same.

In light of that, I've come to suspect that most of us never actually fulfill all of the obligations that have been set for us. What happens instead is that circumstances and the community of people around us do most of the heavy lifting, and we just take the credit. This, in turn, prompts us to think of ourselves and others as more active and/or capable than we really are, and thus more less cognizant of the role that external factors play.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Just to Clarify...

Okay... Let me get this straight. Michigan legislators who are trying to score political points with people who take their cues on life from selective readings of a selectively edited anthology of religious tales (the most recent of which are nearly two millennia old)  that some even take to be an accurate history of the world (and in some places, prophetic about the future of the world, despite seeming to have been written while on crack) have basically gutted a piece of legislation because it would protect from bullying and harassment certain people that a literal reading of one of the specific tales in the aforementioned selectively edited religious anthology says should all be killed on sight, doing so by basically saying that if you really, really believe what you selectively read from these old religious stories (or what someone else told you that they said), then it's okay.

Do I understand the situation properly?

And people are surprised/upset/angered by this exactly why? You might as well be hacked off that it rains in Seattle.

Welcome to a republic people, where even those citizens who take their cues on life from selective interpretations of self-serving religious tales of sketchy providence have the right to representation.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Christmastime treason and plot.
Stores see no reason why Christmas gift season
Should ever be forgot.

Didn't it used to be illegal to cram stores with Merry Christmas crap from wall to wall before Thanksgiving? I walked into Target today, and my eyes about started bleeding.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Lumpy Ideals

But there’s a sense among the [Occupy Wall Street] protesters (though it’s common among protesters for other social causes as well) that the nature and existence of the injustice they seek to eliminate is obvious. An apparent corollary of this belief is that those who disagree with their prescriptions are stupid or evil. And that all that’s required to make positive change is to develop the willpower to do what we already know is right.

Maybe it’s the philosopher in me, but this kind of attitude always rubs me the wrong way. Things are rarely so simple. Here, as in so many other involving complex social issues, there is room for reasonable people to disagree not merely about what ought to be done to correct injustice, but about what really ought to count as an injustice in the first place.
Matt Zwolinski, Does Inequality Matter? Bleeding Heart Libertarians
Sometimes, it's seeing your own outlook on life reflected back at you that exposes the parts of it that you never really thought about before. As a moderate, I see people who believe in obvious injustice all around me. The Evangelical Christian who is convinced that Satan is at work in sexual license. The Anarcho-capitalist who believes that taxation is theft and that power of the state is an evil. The advocate for immigration reform who holds that the right to migrate is non-negotiable. Not being excited about any of these things, I find their black-and-white passion to be quaintly naïve at best and a cynical tool that allows them to demonize all who disagree at worst. And so, in my "reasonable" way, I preached the tolerance of agnosticism, calling on the people I interacted with - especially whose viewpoints I sympathized with - to see the world in more shades of gray, and to embrace the complexity that surrounds us. And now, I find myself asking: "why?"

Okay, the world that I live in is very complex. I understand that, even if some people that I come into contact with don't. If no two of us can really live in the same world, why shouldn't they live in one that's simple and easy to navigate? Leaving aside my Truth Reflex, since I understand that my Truth is valid for no more than a single person, what difference does it make to me if people live in a simplistic world where the answers to life's questions are near at hand? In almost all cases, it doesn't matter a whit to me. They're not going to be able to impose their world view on me in anything approaching a reasonable timeframe. Simple worlds are a lot like action - there is an equal and opposite reaction in someone else's simple world, and while those two go at it hammer and tongs, I can go on about my business. Any real concern on my part that I'm going to wake up tomorrow in a theocracy or an anarchy is pure fantasy.

And given that people do things, and see the world, in the ways that they do because these things _work_ for them (no matter how dysfunctional it might appear to me) a simple debate isn't going to change that. I'm neither mean-spirited nor invested enough to do the world that it would take to undermine people enough that their straightforward worldviews aren't going to work for them. And that assumes that I understand the world well enough - which I don't. I can just barely point to the times when things that I used to do stopped working well enough for me that I gave up on them.

In the end, I suspect a firm belief in complexity and an agnostic view towards things that others have a deep and abiding faith in doesn't really preclude one from being an idealist. It's simply becomes a muddy and jumbled form of idealism where the world is both impossibly complex yet not beyond the ability of people to sort it all out. All idealism is founded on wanting to believe that people can be better than they are. The desire that we'll make positive change through developing the willpower to do what we already know it right is one way in which that manifests itself. But so is the idea that we really are smart enough to make an increasingly complex world work without needing to fall back on simple answers. The realization that we're all idealists of a sort can be a difficult one, especially when the term conjures up a starry-eyed naïf. But the liberating things about seeing your own idealism is that it's easier to not hold other people do it. And maybe that's what we're more in need of these days.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Room For Debate

I was reading Public Debate, Dialog, and, by Deborah Teramis Christian, and started thinking again about the nature of public debate, especially as it pertains to the Internet.

My personal understanding of things is that HOW we debate really hasn't changed, but WHAT we debate has. While many have lamented that the anonymity afforded by the Internet have lead to people being disinhibited in the way that they speak to each other, it's just as important to realize that this phenomenon also extends to the topics under discussion. Despite the fact that you're never supposed to talk about sex, politics, and religion (and/or money), you could float the entire Web on discussions of nothing else. And the issue with these topics, and those that touch on (or trample over) them isn't that we can't manage to talk about them in an adult way - it's that most of the time we don't actually know what we're talking about.

Now, before you pipe in to assure me that you are QUITE knowledgeable about sex, thank you very much, that's not really what I mean. Many of us are quite well versed in the topics under consideration. But we don't realize that they aren't really the focus of the conversation. This was driven home to me when I was watching Niall Ferguson and Jeffrey Sachs on CNN's GPS show this morning. Ferguson, in my opinion was attempting to speak to the facts, to try and talk about what had really brought down the global economic system. Sachs, on the other hand, was defending his moral instincts, life experience and feelings. In short order, they were talking past one another. It became fairly clear that Sachs, feeling that Ferguson was directly attacking him, was responding in kind, accusing Ferguson of "name calling" and claiming that he is "confusing so many issues." By the end of the discussion, it was clear that Niall Ferguson was speaking about flaws in Jeffrey Sachs' argument. Jeffrey Sachs, on the other hands, was discussing flaws in Niall Ferguson.

This is not surprising. Once, in a discussion on Google+ someone remarked that if you referred to a movie or other media as "lame" you were "automatically" calling out as stupid anyone who liked said media. In a culture in which we don't often differentiate (linguistically, at least) between our esthetic judgements and objective findings of fact, one can see how a discussion shifts from the merits to someone's point to a heated argument about the people involved and/or their own feelings of legitimacy.

The issue is not, as you might expect, that we don't pick up on subtext. In fact, the problem might be quite the opposite, that we are TOO focused on perceived subtexts, even (or especially) when the speaker/writer does not intend them. Case in point: I, for my part, am of the opinion that a primary reason that it difficult for Americans to talk about policy is that we each tend to see our own viewpoints as simple and obvious - anyone who puts more than a moment's rational thought with an open mind to the topic should realize the facts lead them exactly to where the facts lead us. Therefore we tend to have little or no respect for those whose viewpoints differ from our own. They're cretins, dupes, shills, whatever, but the reason for our disagreement is that the person on the other side is either unintelligent, incredulous or immoral. This questioning of the judgment or thoughtfulness of someone that you claim to trying to persuade is both glaringly obvious to me (after a post on Seth Godin's blog pointed it out to me in the first place) and just as obviously counter-productive. But, as my father used to say, "obvious" means that you're only person who can see it. So while many of the discussions that I've observed have eventually produced intimations or outright statements that one or both parties are stupid, being used or actively seeking to undermine the cause of right and justice, the perception that a subtext of active disrespect is at work tends to be mine and mine alone.

And because the subtexts are perceived/unintended, the responses they provoke nearly always catch the target off-guard. And if they then respond to a perceived subtext in what's being said to them... well, you can see how things quickly go off the rails. What's infuriating about this is how difficult it is to control, even when you're aware of it. I know that the perception of a speaker disrespecting others tends to set me off - especially when I agree with what the actual point that speaker is making, and I'm aware that I'm usually the only one who sees disrespect, and I still tend to come out swinging. And I'm usually surprised when the person I'm responding to is surprised that I see them as being disrespectful to others.

As we become more comfortable discussing topics that carry perceived subtexts that are very meaningful for us, I think that we will encounter this more and more. And unless we become not only more aware of it, but learn to exercise control over it, our debates will continue to produce copious heat, but precious little light.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Now What?

So it looks like Occupy Oakland has gone somewhat off the rails. I've been reading various local and national accounts for an hour, from the LA Times to the Huffington Post. There's a fairly broad range of opinion over just what made things turn violent - the police not choosing to simply look the other way, to elements of the crowd looking for an excuse to riot. In any event, let the recriminations begin.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Walking In Circles

This cartoon resonates with me. When I read it, my mind says "Yes! That's EXACTLY what's happening!"

And then, my skepticism kicks in. After all, I'm not intimately tied into the system well enough to actually know what's going on. Perhaps this is just another knee-jerk reaction by a political cartoonist with an axe to grind or an agenda to advance. So I started hunting around for some data to look at. Of course, here I run into a problem, and any good conspiracy theorist will tell me what it is - since I can't independently verify the data, it could all be a bunch of hooey designed to throw me off the scent. And I acknowledge that risk. After all, I don't KNOW anything that I haven't seen for myself. I may believe it, but I do not know it.

Given that caveat, I started looking for voter turnout data and immediately noticed a striking parallel. If you head down to Occupy Seattle (as I have on a few occasions), you'll notice that most of the "live-in" (as opposed to "commuter") protesters are mostly relatively young people - late teens to mid-twenties - university and graduate student age, or just going into the workforce. Take a look at Washington State voter registration data from 2010 for the last general election, and you notice that of eligible voters from 18 to 34, a little less and 50% of them (46.47% to be more precise) came out and voted, leaving them with about 16% of total votes cast. Given this, (and assuming it's roughly the same nationwide - which is, admittedly, a pretty big assumption) it's no wonder that young people feel that the national political culture doesn't serve their interests, and is unresponsive. Conversely, when you head to the upper end of the age range, 65+, you find that even though they comprise just shy of one-fifth of eligible voters, they cast almost one-fourth of the votes - about 8 out of every 9 voters in that demographic voted. It doesn't take much mental horsepower to understand why retirement communities are such popular campaign stops.

Now, before I go on, let me re-iterate that I understand that Washington State is not the entire nation, so I'm engaged in a fair amount of generalization. But voter registration is a state and not a federal issue, and so federal numbers by age cohort were not immediately available to me, sitting in front of my computer. I could likely find them, assuming they exist, but that's more work than I want to put into a Sunday morning blog post.

But getting back to my primary premise. According to the United States Election Project at George Mason University, in the 2010 election "the national total ballots cast is estimated to be 90.3 million or 41.4% of those eligible to vote." This number is an estimate because not all states report it. Again, this does leave an opening for chicanery, since estimates are subject to intentional (or unintentional) biasing. It's also tricky because in this case "eligible" does not mean "registered." (According to state data, Washington has about 3.6 million registered voters, the GMU data tells us there are about 5.2 million eligible voters in the state.) But by either measure, you have large numbers of people who are not participating in the process. And one of the central characteristics of democracies and republics is that even when they are working well, they tend to punish non-participation (voluntary or not).

Okay, so that leaves us with some understanding that many people, especially young ones, have turned off politics. How does this interact with interest groups taking over government? To me, this one is easy, and it dovetails nicely with another complaint that both the Left and Right in the United States have with politics - too much ("special interest") money. I have a general hypothesis about why money plays such a large role in politics: people who are not strongly partisan one way or another tend to make up their minds in such a way that correlates more or less directly with the amount of money spent. That is to say, "swing voters" are swung by campaign advertising dollars. I suspected that it would be relatively easy to check this against data. But that turns out not to be the case. Information may want to be free, but the people who compile it want to eat, and so they don't give it away. And so the hard data on the correlation between swing votes and dollars spent isn't at my fingertips. But I did find a couple of nuggets in abstracts:
Melinda Gann Hall, of Michigan State University, and Chris W. Bonneau, of the University of Pittsburgh, used a two-stage modeling strategy to assess whether relatively expensive campaigns improve the chances that citizens will vote in the 260 supreme court elections held from 1990 through 2004 in 18 states.

Results show that increased spending improved participation in these races. Whether measured as the overall spending in each election or in per capita terms, greater spending facilitates voting and money means voters in Supreme Court elections.
Increased campaign spending improves citizen participation in state supreme court elections
In contrast to previous research showing that, because of higher marginal returns to challenger spending, the incumbent's spending advantage cannot explain high incumbent reelection rates, this article shows that in an average Senate election the incumbent's spending advantage yields a 6% increase in the incumbent's vote share.
Estimating the Effect of Campaign Spending on Senate Election Outcomes Using Instrumental Variables
Put together, these would point to the idea that the more money spent in an election, the higher the turnout, and for Senate incumbents, anyway, outspending the opposition tends to increase vote share.

All of this leads me to a hypothesis - young people are disaffected with politics because between their relatively small percentage of the electorate and their low voter turnout, they don't represent enough potential votes for professional politicians to cater to them directly. Among voters who are not strongly partisan, voting patterns correlate with the amount of money spent advertising to them. Between these two factors, more money is spent on wooing older voters, who are less likely to go looking for non-mainstream candidates in an attempt to find very close matches to their individual viewpoints. When you look at political protests, especially those on the left, the main constituency is comprised of people who don't vote in large numbers - while Occupy Wall Street (and other locations) are mainly young people, the large immigrant rally marches had the same issue - the protestors were ready, willing and able to take their message to the streets, but were unwilling or unable to vote. (Note that along with this, another voting group that tends to complain of being shut out, African-Americans, doesn't vote in large numbers, and so the major political parties don't spend much time courting them.)

I passed on majoring in Political Science in college - I was told there were a lot of papers to be written, and I dislike writing. (I blog in a continuing attempt to overcome that.) So now, some time later, I'm not immediately equipped to test my hypothesis. But if I assume that I'm at least barking up the right tree, these are the tactics I would expect would be effective.
  • Become more involved. Understand your positions, and which candidates support them, even those from minor parties. The more people understand who they want to vote for and why, the less important large advertising buys become.

  • Older people are the ones who swing elections. Communicate with them, understand what they want, and structure platforms that make getting that incumbent on you getting what you want.

  • It's about personal relationships. Television tends to be considered more credible than strangers, but less so than friends. Start forming bonds with people.
Will they work? I don't know. But I think that starting on them will break the chain of public apathy and interest group influence.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Here is a basic question that we have to answer for ourselves: When does a need for something become an entitlement to that thing?

This is a difficult question to answer, because there are a remarkable number of variables to consider.

Consider the fable of the grasshopper and the ants. The grasshopper frolics all spring and summer, while the ants spend their time working to lay in stores for the fall and winter. Eventually, as the seasons turn, the grasshopper starts to go hungry. Now, considering that this story is a fable, and thus a morality tale, conventional wisdom holds that the grasshopper has to appeal to the charitable instincts of the ants, and if those fail him, he goes hungry. But there is a counter-moral, which holds that for the ants to withhold charity is to fail in their moral obligations just as much as the grasshopper did, and two wrongs don't make a right.

Or consider this conundrum, which we argued vociferously back when I was a high-school student in a Catholic academy. A man's wife is dying. There is a medicine that can save her, but the price that the pharmacist asks is to high for the man to pay. May he legitimately steal the medicine? If he does, must he make amends to the pharmacist? If so, what may the pharmacist ask of him as recompense? What if he asks too much of the man? And so it goes. As you can imagine, it was a very contentious debate.

Leaving these somewhat contrived examples behind, and moving on into real life, things become even more convoluted, partially because things do not scale very well. Generally speaking, we are uncomfortable imposing on individuals measures that we are more willing to impose on communities. Neither do they transfer well - we tend to be less sanguine about measures imposed on ourselves than we are about measures imposed on others. There also the question of relative imposition - sometimes people are willing to impose one part of a deal but not another. (Generally speaking, given a arrangement that works to the advantage of both parties vis-à-vis the status quo, the least advantaged party may be allowed to impose this upon the other party, but the more advantaged party almost never is.)

At the bottom of it all is a simple concept that is often overlooked. Ideas such as fairness, justice and equity are not objective physical characteristics, but rather subjective understandings of certain situations, and defined in relation to how we each see the world. While it's a simple matter to get most people to agree that "Murder is always wrong," (especially given the fact that as a tautology, it's correct by definition) "the killing of someone who has done no intentional harm to you is always wrong," can be a subject of intense debate.

And it's that very lack of objectivity, and our difficulty in seeing and/or conceding it, that threatens to make this an endless debate.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

To Confuse Matters...

Herman Cain versus Social Conservatives on the subject of abortion... Interesting. I'm surprised that more people don't seem to understand that Cain is taking a fairly run-of-the-mill Libertarian stance on the subject (even if he doesn't always articulate it well).

While Cain clearly feels that abortion is reprehensible, he's only slightly less clear about the fact that he would make no attempt to legislate the practice out of existence - he feels that it would be inappropriate to try. Cue the outcry - from the left and the right - basically for an orthodoxy foul.

But this is why it's not quite correct to associate Libertarians with the stereotypical Conservative party line. Social Conservatives tend to be VERY "statist," as the term is used, looking for government intervention in people's lives in the name of preserving public morals (or, depending on your viewpoint, forcing everyone else to pay lip service to their idea of proper religion). Libertarians, with their focus on limiting the role of government as far as possible, generally don't allow room for government enforcement of social issues.

To be sure, the stereotypical Libertarian focus on fiscal matters tends to obscure this, as the prominent Libertarian think tanks and the like tend to downplay support of decriminalizing drugs and other freedoms that the Left tends to hold dear. If you don't become somewhat steeped in the minutia of the whole thing it's really easy to come away with the idea that a Libertarian utopia is a theocratic police state - as long as it isn't funded by tax revenue. But just like the common stereotype of the Left, this is simply another place where Conventional Wisdom proves to be unwise.

Herman Cain's somewhat muddled public statements on this are adding to the confusion about what he really believes, and make it seem as if he's talking out of both sides of his mouth, attempting to be all things to all people. (Or at least those on either side of the abortion debate.) But what's really going on is he's simply not as good an orator as he is a singer, and it's likely that the Republican Party will move on from him, especially if he demonstrates more ways in which he doesn't favor using government as a means of punishing the enemies of Conservative orthodoxy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wither the Enemy?

I've been dropping in on Occupy Seattle from time to time, and I don't know if I understand what it is they're really fighting.

Oh, I understand perfectly well what they think they're fighting. They're perfectly clear about that, if you can stand the marijuana smoke and tune out the mentally-ill homeless hangers-on long enough to listen in for a while. But I wonder if the problem doesn't go deeper, much deeper, than that.

Humanity, in my humble opinion, simply doesn't scale up well. The sorts of small communities in which it more or less doesn't matter what sort of government (or lack thereof) that is in place have to remain small, or things start to go off the rails. We see it time and again. Put enough people into a place, and factions start to form, as people begin to conclude that there simply isn't enough to go around. Combine any given faction with a lack of overall accountability and you have a surefire recipe for problems. It doesn't matter what sort of institution you create. Governments, churches, corporations; they all start looking for ways to secure themselves at the expense of those that they aren't accountable to. Direct accountability only goes so far, and indirect accountability takes more work than it seems that we're ready, willing or able to put into it.

And that's a much harder phenomenon to fight.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lessons My Father Taught Me

My father and I had one of those "complex" parent-child relationships, and to a degree, we still do. Still, despite our disagreements, I regard my father as a very wise man. I was thinking of the things that I learned from him, and boiled it down to this list of the most important/interesting things. Sure, most of them are simple aphorisms, but having had the opportunity to grow into them from when I was a child somehow makes them seem deep and profound, in a way that things you understand the first time you hear them don't.

People in Hell want ice water. (I hated hearing this as a child, but as I've grown older, I come to really understand that it's true on a surprising number of levels.)

The definition of "obvious" is something that is so crystal-clear that you are the only person who can see it.

There are two kinds of people in the world. People who believe that you can divide everyone in the world into two groups - and people with some sense.

If you don't know what you're doing, stop doing it until you do.

The trick to getting someone to like you is not to do something for them - it's to get them to do something for you.

There are two people on either side of every job. The person that takes a job, and the person that gives a job. One of these positions is better to be in than the other.

The one way to become rich by doing a job is to do a job that other people can't do, or that other people won't do.

There's little point to redistributing wealth. The problem that most people have isn't that they don't know how to obtain money - it's that they don't know how to keep it, and therefore, most of the money will eventually wind up back where it started.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Feel the Beat

Because it just isn't a lefty protest without a drum circle.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Phat Company

"For the top 100 companies, about 30 percent of their total value is bound up in this thing called brand."
The World's Most Valuable and Fastest Growing Brands

Or, put another way, 30 percent of the value of the top 100 companies is derived from the fact that a certain level of sales is driven entirely by brand loyalty. Now, this is an average - the numbers by company vary widely - "Brand contributes about 20% to GE's total earnings, whereas Coca Cola is nearer to 80%." In effect, were I selling the exact same product as Coca-Cola (think a white can with "COLA" on it in black stenciling), my earnings would only be about 20% of Coke's, all because of the brand name on the can.

And we think nothing of this. People could literally save 30% on a regular basis by focusing on factors like price, location and quality.

On the other hand, I bet that you couldn't find a government anywhere in the nation that sees anything close to a 30% margin, even on its best day. But we always seem to feel that it's government that's ripping us off...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I Need A Dollar

The juxtaposition of hard times, unemployment and despair with jaunty, addictive lyrics and upbeat tempo is jarring, but strangely compelling.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Worst. Advice. Ever.

The Economist, a magazine that I normally enjoy reading, is doing what I dislike most in the media - fear mongering.

Outside of the simple fact that emoting never solves anything, telling people to be afraid sends exactly the wrong message. What will our fear accomplish? Every time we as the public respond to a situation with inchoate terror, politicians (well meaning or not is for the reader to decide) rush to make the case that they need more powers to deal with the situation; which they eventually become reluctant to part with, even once it becomes clear that the problem isn't being solved, because the exercise of those powers enables them to claim to be acting, and if those powers are relinquished and a new crisis arises, the political opposition is going to be quick to lay blame. And not only do those power come with limitations on how we can live our lives, but the trade-offs they entail start to erode our ability to care for ourselves and each other. In other words, the ability to protect requires power that increases the need to protect. And the cycle goes on.

Saving the world economy is possible by the actions of us, as people. We're always told to think of our lives as if life were a railroad, with us as passengers at the mercy of the engineers and conductors. But I think that an expressway is a better metaphor. Traffic jams are a fact of life, but if we are all skilled drivers - and are willing to lean on our horns when people start getting out of line - we can, collectively, minimize the delays. Okay, so we'll need the help of the D.O.T., or a traffic cop now and again. But if we all understand the rules of the road - especially those that we've created for ourselves, we can create a well-functioning (if very imperfect) system.

I know I keep coming back to this metaphor, but it speaks to me, and so it's always at hand. I understand the search for a Good Shepherd, but shepherds eat mutton, too.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


I need so see if this guy will sell me some. As near as I can see, this thing is constructed completely of Bionicle parts.

Speaking to Motive

Ursula Goodenough asks: "What motivates a [climate change] denier?" And she basically received a number of different answers. One motivation from the deniers/skeptics that wrote in and a number of attributions of motive from people who weren't themselves deniers, instead being people who worried about climate change.

Goodenough posted six on the various attributions that climate change "worriers" attached to the skeptics. One matched the motive that skeptics themselves gave. The other five covered a variety of different bases, but didn't really line up with what the skeptics themselves claimed, and more than one was a thinly veiled expression of contempt.

I suspect that if you ran the experiment the other way, you'd see a similar pattern, with skeptics attributing motives to worriers that were largely unrelated to the motives that worriers claim.

Any wagers that worriers who believe in the other five motives think that someone is lying? (And vice versa?) And that causes a problem, because people tend to behave as if the motives that they have attributed to others are accurate, and then expect those people to admit to them. This is why we never get anywhere. We attribute motives to other people and then demand accountability for those motives as a condition of dialog.

No wonder no-one's talking.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Calling a Bowl a Spade‏

"Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: On borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem." President Barack Obama.
Okay, then, Mr. President. Given that at least 95%+ of the American population is neither Israeli of Palestinian, why the fuck are WE involved in this, then? Why is it that the Israelis can pretty much always request the United States to insert itself into a process of solving a problem that we didn’t create (not to self – NEVER give something to a Briton and say “divide this equitably, please”) and you yourself seem to be saying is none of our bloody business, while the Palestinians should be barred from seeking help and recognition from abroad. Mr. President, most of the Arab and Moslem worlds already regard us as having sided with the Israelis; even I don’t believe that we’re the impartial third party that we claim to be, and that’s without yahoos like Texas Governor Rick Perry and his “let’s start another damned crusade” bullshit of “As a Christian I have a clear directive to support Israel.”

Look, sir. I get that we have interests in the region, and that we really don’t give a flying fuck about the “Arab Street” as long as their governments continue to keep the oil pumping and look the other way when be blow their citizens away for being feloniously scary. I get that we regard Israel as an important enough ally that we’re willing to overlook any hinky crap that they might be up to. We expect the same of our own allies. I'm not a naïf. I don’t live under a rock. Apparently dysfunctional as it is, this is the way that international diplomacy works. But must we pretend so aggressively that we’re something we aren’t? What’s wrong with treating this whole situation with a wink and a nod? Why insist time and time again – with a straight face, no less – that we’re neutral and then continue to do things that prove that we aren’t?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Lead a Horse to Water

"Bad leadership equals bad outcomes."

Okay then. I'll accept that for a moment. But it seems to me that it leads to this corollary...

"The sole measure of a leader's competence is their ability to consistently create good outcomes."

Anybody want to be a leader? Anybody? Anybody? (Bueller...?) After all, if you do it correctly, everything will be okay, regardless of the other factors in play. Right?

My point isn't be a cheerleader for President Obama. I'm not impressed, either.

But if we read facile statements like "Bad leadership equals bad outcomes," and then all nod our heads in agreement, we buy into the single most corrosive aspect of the Cult of Leadership - that all we need is the right leader, and everything will be okay - that there is no problem in the world that proper leadership wouldn't have forestalled. But all of the leadership in the world doesn't un-break something if it turns out that it's fundamentally broken.

It doesn't take a degree in finance to realize that we'd set a baseline for our economy that included borrowing a certain amount of the funds that we were spending, and that we couldn't sustain that indefinitely. And the longer you let it go a) the harder it becomes to sustain, b) the more significant the hit when you decide to stop sustaining it or c) the bigger the miracle you need to make it go away without feeling any pain.

Sometimes, all good leadership is capable of is making the best of a bad outcome.

Could the President have done something differently that would have fixed the situation and have been considered worth the cost? Maybe - but certainly not with an Executive Order. This idea that if he'd only have come up with the perfect solution that Democrats and Republicans in Congress would have seen the light and passed it during a chorus of Kumbaya strikes me as suspect, at best.

Yes, the buck stops at the President's desk. But we shouldn't regard that as an invitation to pass it ourselves. It's said that "Nothing is impossible to the person that doesn't have to do it themselves." So, if it's so easy, maybe we should be putting our heads together, rather than waiting for someone else to rescue us.

Because if bad leadership equals bad outcomes, so does willfully following what we have already identified as bad leadership, even if we seek absolution in so doing.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Quick on the Trigger

I think that Matthew Yglesias is too quick to take umbrage at a perceived slight against the masses and jumps back into the realm of "the Public is always to be above Criticism," perhaps because of Brooks' use of the word "sins" which connotes intentional wrongdoing.

Perhaps a better wording of Brooks' closing could be thus: "Over the past decades, Americans have developed an absurd view of the power of government. Many voters seem to think that government has the power to protect them from the consequences of their inattention to politics, ignorance of the issues, wishful-thinking-driven decision-making and just plain bad luck. Then they get angry and cynical when it turns out that it can’t."

And I think that Brooks has a point here. If you buy a home because prices are going up, up, up, and you don't want to miss the gravy train and your sister-in-law some said that guy who knows a guy who's related to this woman who slept with her cousin told her that "real estate never loses value," you're taking a risk, especially if you don't set out to understand what's actually going on. As far back as 2007, it was clear that home prices were rising so fast, relative to wages that it couldn't go on forever, or even much longer. (I'm not going to claim I saw a crash coming, however. I figured it would simply plateau.)

The job of government isn't to make everything turn out okay, regardless of our own actions (I suspect I'm starting to sound like Ron Paul here). It can't be, because if we consistently covered each other all the time, we'd all go broke. I understand why Mr. Yglesias is upset, but I think his focus on the word "sins" is a bit too strong.

Does it Matter?

The common Christian idea that to not believe in a deity is to believe that there is nothing in the universe greater than oneself always struck me as strange.

The idea that the Universe is structured God > People > Everything Else seems nonsensical to me.

After all, had I to dropped dead in the middle of typing this, eight minutes from then, would anything have noticed? But - were the Sun to have gone out during that time, after about eight minutes, I'd have been very (and eventually fatally) put out. So I'm pretty sure that Sun > Me is true. Just like Earth > Me, Trees > Me and Viruses > Me are true. So assuming that a deity has the top spot, I'm nowhere near second place, and so the absence of that deity does not put me into first.

And in a very real way, that makes me irrelevant. In fact, most of us are irrelevant. The Universe does not miss us when we become absent, and neither do most of our fellow humans. But we don't like that; and it makes sense why. Chapter 3 of The Origin of Species is "Struggle for Existence." When Darwin explains this term he tells that he uses it to encompass three different scenarios - the Struggle for Existence within a species, the Struggle for Existence between species and the Struggle for Existence against the environment. All of these would be short-circuited by the failure of individuals to fight to survive, and a general feeling that it doesn't make any difference tends to short-circuit the will to fight to survive. Therefore, it is possible to make the case that our own understanding of our importance in the grand scheme of things is programmed into us by Nature.

And so we create all sorts of mechanisms, designed to tell us that we're important. The idea that God loves us. The idea that all people are equals. The idea that how we behave during life always matters, and there will be repercussions even after we die.

But everywhere we look we are bombarded by indications that, actually, we aren't all that important. As individuals or even large groups, most of us wouldn't be missed, except by those people who know us reasonably well. From 2002 to 2008, how many people were murdered in the United States? Pick a round number. Would you have any clue if you didn't have Google at your fingertips? The answer is a little over 100,000 people. Can you put your finger on what difference it may have made? How the world is any different? We're still here as a nation, let alone a species, and still kicking butts and taking names. Can articulate one thing that we're doing to prevent these deaths? Or perhaps, can you articulate one thing that you're doing?

And I think that this is the source of the uproar over Wolf Blitzer's question to Ron Paul in the recent debate, and the crowd's reaction to it. Where some one may or may not have said "Let him die," what many people really heard was, "He doesn't matter." And even though we often seem to behave as though that were true, we don't normally profess it. And many of us become profoundly uncomfortable when we feel that others do. And I think this is because many of us fear that it is, actually, true.

Look at the abortion debate. Really, it's an argument over who matters more - pregnant women or the fetuses (feti?) they carry. When I was in a parochial school growing up I was taught that the fetus was who mattered. If necessary, the mother was expected to go to her death to preserve it, regardless of the consequences to anyone else. New life trumped those already born. On the pro-choice side, a different argument is made - that the life, health and autonomy of the woman are important and should have weight, rather than simply being cast aside in favor of a conceptualization of women as little more than baby delivery vehicles - unimportant, except for this function that they carry out.

The many facets of the debate over the Affordable Care Act also reflect this. Remember "Death Panels" and "Rationing Care?" Both of those were tropes brought up by opponents of the Act to convey to people the idea that if the ACA were to pass, that their inalienable right to Importance would be, in fact, alienated, and decisions over who was worthy and who was not would be made by "faceless government bureaucrats" - otherwise known as "people who don't understand how important you are." On the flip side, those who support the idea of the government taking steps to ensure access to a certain level of care see critics as advocating a system where people without means are left to fend for themselves when they are in need - unimportant.

But it manifests itself in other ways, too. The Federal government spends a pretty good chunk of change every year making sure that the President of the United States of America is kept safe - and to a lesser extent, that protection is extended to ex-presidents, as well. We're told that the President is a Very Important Person and it would be Really Bad if anything were to happen to them. But there is an entire line of succession, some 17 people long, designed specifically to ensure that the government keeps functioning in just such an instance. This not to say that just because there is a contingency plan in place, that one doesn't guard against the possibility, but realistically, nothing short of a new World War could get through the cocoon around the President, let alone manage an effective decapitation strike against the United States, and so a lot of the expenditure seem more about projecting how Important the president is, rather than protecting him from any sort of credible threat.

In spite of the fact that, really, in the grand scheme of things, we're only temporary, we put a lot of time and effort into convincing ourselves and each other that we matter, that we're relevant - that we're important. Like a lot of things that are baked into us from the start, we're not as aware of it as we could be. In fact, being too aware of it is seen as pathological. We are supposed to matter, and to resist being irrelevant. But the Universe carries on, unaware of our efforts.