Wednesday, April 27, 2011


It's not going to help.

The idea that this is going to set the "birther" controversy to rest is a fallacy. Given that this isn't really about where the President was born, but about whether certain aggrieved Americans understand that he is just as American as they are, this release can't change that. Either the controversy will move on to something else (Donald Trump is already moving the questioning towards the President's academic record), or there will simply be "doubts" about the authenticity of the document.

I understand why this move was made, but it seems like an exercise in futility.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Reason To Believe

When people are attached to a falsehood, the emotional price of letting go of the lie is higher than the price of being seen by others as silly or wrong.
Amanda Marcotte "Why The Trig Palin Obsession?"
An interesting observation, to be sure, but I suspect that it's not quite accurate. First, the focus on falsehoods/lies is misleading. I doubt that you could find anyone who would claim to actively believe something that they know to be a falsehood and not also find some evidence of mental illness. Secondly, in a lot of cases, I suspect that we're not really talking about a solely emotional price.
If, on the other hand, the conspiracy theorists are wrong, well, that means the world is random, and the people who wield power or influence can screw up like everyone else. No one wants to believe that.
David Weigel "You're All Nuts!"
I think that David Weigel has it closer to the truth, although again, this is a broader phenomenon than simply conspiracy theories.

Under normal circumstances, we don't care what baggage people attach to the things that we consider true, but I could be just as adamant that the refraction of sunlight causes rainbows because there is another important concept bound up in that as I could be about the idea that Hurricane Katrina was triggered by a Russian weather-control superweapon or the Sendai earthquake was triggered by underground nuclear weapons testing. If I don't want to think that Mother Nature could simply get it into her head to drop an anvil on us, I'm not limited to linking that solely to falsehoods, lies and/or conspiracy theories.

The price of letting go of dearly held ideas is, as Amanda Marcotte points out, generally much "higher than the price of being seen by others as silly or wrong." And this is often because that price is, rather than just emotional, often nothing less than our sense of legitimacy. Now, there are a number of different ways to look at this, but you can see it in a number of places. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a reputation for being perhaps the world's most vocal Holocaust denier. But when I've heard (or heard of) him talking about the subject, you quickly realize that this isn't about whether or not some number of Jewish people were killed by the Nazis before and during the Second World War. It's about the legitimacy of the State of Israel. If you assume (and I think that this is President Ahmadinejad's reasoning) that the land upon which Israel sits was basically given to them as reparations for the Holocaust, if you debunk the Holocaust, then you undermine the reason for the land grant, and legitimacy reverts to the dispossessed Palestinians, whom President Ahmadinejad supports. And the stakes can, of course, go even higher, even going as high as one's life. True, the idea that it was humans building massive dams, and not Mother Nature, that triggered the 2008 Sichuan earthquake doesn't seem very comforting at first, but when you think about it, it points to the idea that if people just stopped monkeying with things, everything would be okay. And that can often seem like a superior alternative to the idea that every so often, the planet just twitches - and tens of thousands of lives are simply snuffed out without pity and with no way to prevent it.

These ideas, that disasters are random, that a small handful of religious fanatics living in caves somewhere can commit mass murder or even that the values that we hold dear aren't shared by the people around us, can be more frightening than those of us who are okay with such things generally give them credit for. It's worth keeping that in mind. Because if you don't either de-link or assuage the underlying idea, the "facts" to which it becomes attached aren't going anywhere either.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Lip Service

Texas Governor Rick Perry has released an official proclamation requesting that people of faith in Texas pray for rain.

As someone who doesn't get into this sort of thing myself, it seems more like a public relations stunt or a way of maintaining the Governor's Christian bona fides more than anything else, but this is the nature of politics. Given the rather strange relationship that American Christianity has with God, it's hard to guess whether or not the Perry actually thinks that humbly appealing to a higher power would work.

But let's take the idea at face value for a moment, and assume that Governor Perry is being perfectly on the up-and-up with this, and that he's honestly of the opinion that if enough Texans ask, very nicely, that God could be convinced to alter the weather over Texas. The first thing that came to my mind was, "Maybe God's upset with Texas for sending a man who may very well have been innocent to his death, and then burying their heads in the sand to avoid finding out one way or another." Of course it's unlikely that God, in anyone's conception, micromanages the world in such detail. But the situation does illustrate part of the problem with public faith in a nation where it's considered inappropriate to "respect an establishment of religion" in an official capacity. Calling for people to pray, and treating the prayers of all people as equally valid is about the only option available. But it's unlikely that Perry actually believes that "all faiths and traditions" and therefore all prayers, are equally valid.

And so his call comes across as lip service, not to the idea of prayer, but to the idea of religious equality and freedom. Of course, the fact that it seems disingenuous to me doesn't really mean anything, in the greater scheme of things. But it does seem to be central to many aspects of public religiosity. One wonders if no-one expects the Universe to pick up on it. If, of course, you believe it's listening.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Logic Bomb

I will grant you that A ≠ B.

And I will listen/read while you explain to me that A = Bad.

But when you then tell me that you have proven that B = Good, I will disagree with you, regardless of how strenuously you object. Because a takedown of A, no matter how thorough, leaves me just as much in the dark about the pros and cons of B as I was when you started. For all I know, B = Bad, or even B = much, much worse. I have no information on which to judge that, because you've only given me information about A.

B = Good is its own argument, and it deserves to be made as such. Especially if you want to convince me that it's true.

Now, I suspect that this is part and parcel of the "two-party" political system that we have in the United States, which creates a tendency towards false dichotomies. Although the Republicans and the Democrats are the major players, to say that we're a "two-party" system overstates things somewhat, as the two parties are not mandated by law - they simply tend to be the only ones that can manage to be viable on a national level. Because of this, withholding a vote from one party does not mean that I'm forced to give it to the other. (I dislike when people claim that votes for "third parties" are thrown away - by that logic, ANY vote for a losing candidate is wasted.)

Of course, it's easier to create a takedown of A, rather than go in depth into the pros and cons of B. But it tends to create an argument that does little other than preach to the choir of people who already support B. Other people tend to remain unconvinced.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Everyone's Watching

The Royal Wedding in the United Kingdom is taking over the news.

Out of nine Entertainment headlines in the local newspaper the other day, six of them dealt with the upcoming wedding, the Prince or Kate Middleton. I have to admit that I'm somewhat surprised by the amount of attention that this is getting in the United States. Perhaps it's because we're tired of own own celebrities and the political class is somewhat shy about their own lives.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The More Foolish

I was reading some things on Pixiq, when I saw this Twitter post from contributor Sean McCormack.

Which is worse.. The photographer that doesn't understand light, or the person that employs them?
As someone who owns a camera myself, I'm going to say the photographer. And this seems fairly obvious to me. Consider the following analogy:
Which is worse... The newspaper reporter who gets the facts of a story wrong, or the reader who repeats them?
Generally speaking, we'd consider it pretty mean-spirited to blame the reader. After all, if you're expected to know if any given fact in the newspaper is true or untrue, then you likely really don't need to be reading the newspaper in the first place.

By the same token, it seems unfair to expect that any person who hires a photographer be able to make an intelligent determination as to the photographer's overall competence. Yes, I presume there are times when even professional photographers have to hire other photographers (I suspect it's considered somewhat ill-mannered, not to mention very difficult, to photograph one's own wedding), but most of the time, if the people hiring photographers knew that much about photography, they'd shoot their own pictures.

But I get the reference - Ben Kenobi's jab at Han Solo from Star Wars. But even there, it seems like a fairly obvious question. It's just that at the time, is was a new question in the public consciousness. Now that the novelty has worn off, it doesn't seem clever anymore.

Yugo 5000

About a week and a half ago, I received the best 419 scam e-mail ever. It reads like the plot of a international thriller - assuming that the average 8-year old wrote international thrillers. It has detained diplomats, a box full of money, international police agencies, secretive benefactors, a sense of urgency, possible criminal conspiracies and corrupt law enforcement officials in high places. I can't believe that this hasn't hit the big screen yet, with Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie in the lead roles. It would be a blockbuster.After the guy who wrote it works on his basic English grammar, spelling and punctuation, he could really leave the junk e-mail business behind, and start writing elevator pitches for Hollywood. Hey, one scam is just like any other, right?

But in a lot of ways, the most amazing thing about the e-mail is that it exists in the first place. Yes, I know that there's a sucker born every minute, but it would take a real idiot or a remarkable naïf to fall for the scheme that this email is attempting to perpetrate. Anyone with the slightest bit of awareness about and suspicion of the original 419 scam couldn't help but to know better.

And in this way, the new and improved version strikes me as being like a sporty update of the Yugo. (Remember those?) We'll call it the Yugo 5000. The effort that it would take to redesign the Yugo into a twenty-first century sports car seems like a complete waste of time - because pretty much no one who wouldn't buy the original Yugo would buy the new one. So it makes just as much sense to just sell the original. I know that criminals need to keep up with the times, but some things just can't really be updated all that well. And this is one of those things. I mean, there's no real way to run a 419 scam without the promise of a big payoff in return for sending your financial information to some sketchy guy that you'd never heard of before that moment, who is going to ask you for money. No amount of lipstick is going to hide that pig, so why bother?

But if this guy doesn't take this idea to Hollywood, I'm so stealing the plot for a movie. Maybe I can find a way to work in a car chase with Jason Statham driving a candy-apple red hot-rod Yugo.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Just A Thing

When I was listening to NPR this morning, I heard Jennifer Griffin, who had been a correspondent for Fox News is Israel for a time, make an interesting statement. She was talking about the dreadful anticipation of the resumption of hostilities after sundown after the Sabbaths.

"[...] and you knew that a Palestinian suicide bomber was on its way to sites in Jerusalem[...]"
To be fair, it's just as likely, if not more likely, that Mrs. Griffin had simply momentarily lost track of the fact that she was referring to the bomber rather than the bomb, but it jumped out at me nonetheless. And I wondered, "Is this how it starts?" Because we are often told to think of the process of dehumanization as a more organized thing. A sort of emergent order that "exclude[s] the target of aggression from the moral community," even when it lacks intent or design. Still, in the end, it makes the commission of atrocities easier, even when we tell ourselves that we would never do such a thing, and so we're often invited to see an act of deliberate evil there.

But perhaps it just sneaks up on you. Hiding in slips of the tongue or a misplaced word. Until the next thing you know, it's wormed its way into your mind. And where once was a person, is now just a thing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Skipping the Middleman

While in the store yesterday, I came across some notebooks. According to the sticker on the cover they were 100% recycled, and if I bought one, the company would donate one just like it to a needy child. So far, so good. "Get one, give one" programs are nothing new, and seem like a decent enough way to put the average American's tendency towards slacktivism to good use.

But when I picked up the notebook and turned it over, I was in for a bit of a surprise. The price tag read $11.49. For a 5 x 7 inch notebook. This immediately banished any chance of a warm, fuzzy feeling if I purchased this notebook. Surely, I reasoned, I could go to Staples or OfficeMax, and find a six-pack of environmentally friendly notebooks for about the same price. I could just keep one, and donate the rest myself, and do a lot more good for some needy children somewhere. It turns out that I can't quite manage that, but I can do better than just one to donate, depending on which brand I go with. I can also do better than 5 x 7 inches.

But that required doing some research into the topic, which I suppose sort of defeats the purpose of slacktivism in the first place. So I'm still not sure if the ability to tap into our feelings of wanting to do good, but at the same time not do much is a feature or a bug.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Turned Around

In the latest news from Mississippi, "46 percent of GOP voters in the state think interracial marriage should be illegal." While the AOL News story describes this as "startling," who's really surprised by this? After all, we all know that Mississippians are so backwards that we're not expecting them to reach the 10th Century for another couple hundred years.

Except for the fact that it turns out that this 46% percent number is actually 184 people out of "400 usual Mississippi Republican primary voters" that bothered to pick up the phone when some outfit named "Public Policy Polling" called them and started asking questions. Questions like: "Would you describe yourself as very liberal, somewhat liberal, moderate, somewhat conservative, or very conservative?" When 8% of "hardcore Republican voters" in Mississippi self-identify as somewhat to very liberal, you know that something's fishy.

I, for my part, am not a fan of Mississippi. I've spent more time there than I care to think about and my primary impression of the place is that it's a hot, humid, miserable way to die. And there are backwards people there. (Why should Mississippi be spared its share of yahoos?) But it shouldn't take a rocket scientist to realize the issues with self-selection in a survey like this. ("Other factors, such as refusal to be interviewed and weighting, may introduce additional error that is more difficult to quantify," as the survey puts it.) And the presumption that everyone answered the survey with what was in their heart of hearts, and not with what they thought would be a funny answer seems a bit of a stretch. Unfortunately, they didn't ask any other questions that lend themselves to be checked for joking at the interviewer's expense. Which may also be part of the problem. If you're answering fairly normal questions about politics, "what do you think of this-or-that candidate" and "who would you vote for here" kind of things, and then you're asked an out-of-the-blue question about a racially-sensitive topic, but one that hasn't been even remotely relevant for about the past 40 years, you might be tempted to say something outrageous.

Well, the city slickers at AOL may be startled, but I think I'm laughing with the rednecks on this one.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Aim For the Top

In its press release, McDonald’s said it would use the nationwide recruitment drive to invite applicants to “learn that a McJob is one with career growth and endless possibilities.”

“That’s my story,” Jan Fields, McDonald’s USA president, told CNBC. “I started 33 years ago working french fries. I’m now president of McDonald’s U.S. My story really isn’t that unique.”
McDonald’s wants to redefine the McJob 
“Isn’t that unique?” Why not? I mean, realistically speaking, how many president positions does McDonald’s U.S. have? While I don’t doubt that Ms. Fields is a success story, hers is unlikely to be a common one.

This is the issue in any hierarchiacal structure. When each step of the pyramid is smaller than the one before it, there just isn’t enough room for everyone to climb up the levels. And, as a result, there are people who won’t be able to make it above the first rung in a timely fashion, or perhaps ever.

But this gets in the way of the story that we like to tell ourselves - namely that with enough hard work, and perhaps a little luck, one can get to any level that one aspires to. After all, that's the way that a meritocracy works, right? But, as always, there’s a catch. And the basic effect of that catch is that one can really only rise to the highest level that doesn't already have a suitable candidate in it. It’s difficult to make the argument that there is only one person in the United States who's qualified for the job. But only one person is allowed to be Chief Executive at a time - regardless of the fact that with the number of things that we seem to want the President to devote personal attention to, it seems like there's enough work for about a dozen of them.

Sometimes, we need to tell ourselves stories that don’t jive with the reality that we see around us. There are a myriad of reasons for that, and I couldn’t manage list them all here if I tried. But sometimes, all we end up doing is painting a false picture that we’re going to use as a guide by which to judge the world (and the people who inhabit it) by. And there, I’m not sure that we’re doing ourselves any favors.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Don't Provoke Me

What does it mean to "provoke" someone? To "to incite to anger?" To "to stir up purposely?" Or does it mean something other than what I dictionary might tell us? Maybe it means "to get someone to show their 'true colors,'" or "to have to take the blame for someone else's actions?"

It really is a tricky word to parse out, because it confronts us with who bears some or all of the responsibility for someone's acts. If Alice constantly needles Bob until he flies off the handle, does Alice bear the responsibility for actively working to annoy Bob? Does Bob bear the responsibility for being susceptible to flying off the handle? Or are they both responsible?

In the "real world" especially when one speaks of diplomacy, "provocation" is generally speaking a warning. "Quit with the 'provocation' or when the troops show up, or the bombs start falling, you'll have no-one to blame but yourself." It also serves as absolution - "we won't be responsible for the consequences." Viewed in that way, it seems like a cop-out, something people say when they really just want to beat someone up, and don't want to be the "guilty party." In a lot of ways, it's like "terrorist reasoning" (although it's certainly not limited to terrorists) - if you do X, I'll have no choice but to kill these people, and it will be your fault. And we tend to see that for what it is, a self-serving method of abdicating moral agency to another person - effectively pretending to be a puppet as a way of avoiding blame.

But that can't be the entire picture - if for no other reason than the world is more complicated than that, and we don't have perfect information about it.

And that means that sometimes, we're perfectly justified in saying that someone provoked something - but it does require a slightly different take on provocation. Perhaps "to call forth (as a feeling or action)." Imagine that Alice, in a rage, comes after an unsuspecting Bob with a gun, and receives a face full of pepper spray. Then we find out that it wasn't a real gun, and Alice was only joking. (She has a somewhat off sense of humor that way.) Unless we're die-hard Alice fans, we're unlikely to blame Bob for what he'd done. It's unreasonable to expect him to wait for all the facts in the face of what otherwise appeared to be a clear and present danger, even though, in this case, it turned out to be a hoax. In other words, we consider it unfair to treat Bob as a moral agent in his actions, and so we're likely to feel justified in saying that Alice provoked being pepper sprayed, even though she hadn't meant to do so. (On the other hand, she did intend to provoke a fear response, which pretty much worked.)

And that brings us to the yahoos at "The Dove World Outreach Center." They put the Koran "on trial," found it "guilty" of "inciting murder, rape and terrorist activities" and sentenced it to "execution" by burning. Perhaps predictably, there were Moslems who were not pleased. Pastor Jones and his cronies are unfazed, claiming that it's preposterous that their actions could be responsible for the violence.

(I'm going to leave aside the absurdity of "convicting" an inanimate object, which more or less by definition, cannot have any sort of moral agency, of "inciting murder, rape and terrorist activities.")

Given what I've laid out above, you can see how the fault lines are going to break on this, generally in accordance with one's views on Moslems. People who already view Moslems as violent and/or terrorists, and will be inclined to see charges that Dove "provoked" the violence as attempting to find moral cover for unrelated reprehensible behavior. On the other side of the coin, those who are inclined to understand that Moslems sincerely (if not necessarily accurately) feel threatened by the Christian West see Jones' placing all the blame on the protesters as the moral cover-seeking. Of course, these positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive - you can easily decide there's enough blame to go around. Or, better yet, one can refuse to paint with a broad brush, but where's the political advantage or self-righteous fury in that?

Personally, I have a sneaking suspicion that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, looking for a reason to unite his people behind him, and shed his image as a puppet of the United States, saw an opening to redirect his people's anger away from himself, and being a shrewd politician, took it.

It's hard to make sense of the facts on the ground from half a planet away, and as an outsider. I'm not biased enough either way to have a strong opinion as to who is ultimately responsible for what happened, and, to be honest, I'm not interested enough to do the research that would be required to have a really informed opinion. (While I'm sure that a history of Judeo-Christian-Moslem relations over the past several decades or so would be fascinating - actually, I'm pretty positive it wouldn't, and I'm not looking for a job in that field...) So I'm going to have to say that I don't know in what way the word "provoked" applies here, and I don't feel my opinions are grounded enough to be worthwhile.

But we're going top have to deal with this issue, and the concepts of responsibility and moral agency that come with it. Because when people start dying, the bickering over who's at fault may be morally satisfying, but they don't restore the dead.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Scare Me Some More

I don't want to hear the industry and its regulators talk this way after Fukushima. I don't want to hear confidence and assurances. I want to hear humility and a ruthless re-examination of assumptions.
William Saletan "Shaken to the Core"
I have to admit that I almost took Mr. Saletan's article in Friday's edition of Slate as a tasteless April Fool's Day joke. Not because it was laden with inappropriate and unecessary humor, but because of the basic silliness of its premise.
And [William] Levis, in his concluding remarks, found the right tone of humility. "What is it that we don't know?" he asked. "If the heat sink is lost, what would you do? If you lost emergency A/C power, what would you do? We ask ourselves continually those what-if questions, and 'What have we missed here?' "

Keep asking those questions, and we'll all feel safer.
No, Mr. Saletan, we all won't. Sure some of us will, but the nuclear industry understands, just like every other industry understands, that if you're ever at a point where you don't appear to be confident in what you're doing, your critics will seize the opportunity, and attempt to make sure that noone else feels confident in what you're doing, either. Especially given a situation like nuclear power. Mr. Saletan points out that: "Measured by accidents, direct fatalities, and indirect health damage, nuclear energy is many times safer than fossil fuel production." But that should be obvious - the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion and the BP Deepwater Horizon rig disaster both have direct body counts associated with them, while Fukushima does not - yet. There, is however, a significant difference between coal and oil disasters and nuclear ones - coal and oil usually have the good grace to confine the deaths to people who work in the industry, allowing the rest of us to put the fatalities out of our minds. Both of these events took place this month last year. I'll bet you the average person on the street couldn't tell you how many people died in those accidents. This (along with the perceived need for oil and coal) gives the coal and oil industries a little more leeway to be publicly self-questioning - when they publicly wring their hands about safety problems, the lives the general public sees as being at risk are not their own. Sure, people have sympathy for the poor sods who are killed in accidents, but "Why don't they just work someplace else?" is never as far from the surface, I think, as we like to tell ourselves. Nuclear accidents, on the other hand, can get you from a much longer distance away, and so don't end at the plant gates. It's that difference that's important. Given news reports that radition from Fukushima has made it as far as Massachusetts, for the nuclear industry to come out and say that they're uncertain of the safety of their plants could spark NIMBYism on nearly a global scale.

But just as important, it's up to us, as the people who use energy on a daily basis, to understand that there's no such thing as perpetually abundant, clean, cheap and safe energy yet. Now, we might be able to change that at some point, finding a way to harvest sunlight, winds, waves and the heat of the Earth to completely supplant not only the worldwide power grid, but our vehicular energy needs as well (even though we're likely to always need some sorts of volatile fuels for high-performance applications), or maybe we'll even hit upon a way to make fusion power work. But we aren't there yet. And if we set an unreasonably high standard for acceptance of things that we feel we depend on, we tend to trigger two effects - the first being a willingness to bend the truth (if not outright lie) to tell us that those standards are being met and the second being a willingness to believe what we're told, rather than go without. It's no different than a vendor selling food of dubious freshness to a hungry person - the vendor is inclined to say what he needs to in order to make the sale, and the hungry person is inclined to believe what he needs to in order to eat. In such a marketplace, being upfront about questionable freshness simply means that customers go to the person who won't bother them with the details.

It's part of the downside of any large and diverse enterprise. The motivation is always to play to the single largest potential audience that can be garnered. Those people who fall outside of the primary demographic find themselves underserved. This isn't to say that I'm a fan of that situation. I would like it to change, too. But I'm not going to go on the record as saying that I expect anyone to do something that they understand to be not in their interests, just because I would like them to do so. So I put up with the fact that there's at least one nuclear reactor that you could say close enough to where I live that were anything to happen, life would really suck. Of course I also live near a subduction zone and I can go outside on a clear day and not have to walk too far to have direct line-of-sight to a dormant (but not extinct) volcano, considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Clearly, I'm okay with something less than absolute safety. But, reasonably or not, a lot of us aren't (and there's always someone to tell us that things are more dangerous than we think) and so it doesn't make a lot of sense to expect people to call more attention to the potential dangers than they really have to.

It was 40, by the way. 29 at Upper Big Branch, and 11 in the Deepwater Horizon.