Sunday, December 30, 2012


Nothing drives home the arbitrary nature of the calendar quite like the New Year. Come Tuesday, everything will be the same as it was the day before, yet at the same time it will be another in an endless series of new beginnings.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bang, Bang

A little over four years ago, a local Seattle character known as the "Tuba Man" was fatally beaten by three youths near Seattle Center, where the iconic Space Needle stands. A little less than three days ago, police suspect, one of the young men involved shot a man to death in a bar in suburban Bellevue. And, in an unrelated case, another one of the assailants is currently facing federal charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Given the events on the national stage over the past couple of weeks, there will be no national uproar about this. There will be no added calls for a dialog about "gun culture" or the relevance of the Second Amendment to our modern lives. No politicians will incite, and then pander to, the fears of the public over these events.

But this is where the majority of firearms homicide stems from. Random suburbanites suddenly going on shooting sprees with "military-style" rifles with "high-capacity" magazines are, despite being inherently mediagenic, actually very rare in the grand scheme of things. This is not to say that two in less than a month should be ignored, but it is to say that they are not the most pressing problem that is in front of us, if the goal is to prevent murders, rather than calm public fears.

The problem that Ja'mari Alexander-Alan Jones and Billy Chambers represent doesn't drive headlines. But it's the serious one that underlies the shooting that do drive headlines. The use of violence as a tool. Ed "Tuba Man" McMichael was killed because three young men saw assaulting him to be the fastest way to get their hands on some ready cash, and they were willing to take the risk of going to jail for doing so. Not knowing anything about Jones' target in the Bellevue shooting, or the possible relationship between them, I can't speculate about a motive. But this much is clear - whatever Jones was after, if he is the shooter, he sought violence as the path to getting it.

Guns, being inanimate objects, don't kill people. They do, however, make it much easier to kill people, especially from a distance. The "assault weapons" that people have become so afraid of make it much easier to kill numbers of people before they can either flee the scene or law enforcement personnel arrive on the scene. Assuming that we could legislate them out of existence, going forward, murder would be more difficult. But it wouldn't be impossible. Murder happens because some is ready, willing and able to take another person's life. As John McGuinness notes, we can't just treat the symptoms - we have to treat the disease. And laws can't do that for us. Weapons legislation can make a dent in "able." But as long as we continue to ignore "ready" and "willing," the body count will continue to rise. Even if it's slowly enough that we can pretend not to notice.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Minus One

Adam Lanza killed 28 people when he went on a shooting rampage in Newtown, Connecticut. "20 children in Sandy Hook Elementary School, plus six adult faculty and staff members," himself, and his mother, Nancy Lanza - the first to die that morning. Yet for many people, from a local convenience store and deli owner to President Obama, the number of victims stands at 26.

The omission of Adam Lanza as a victim is understandable. Regardless of whatever it was that drove him to mass murder, or how little control he had over those circumstances, Lanza has been indelibly painted as a monster, evil in human form, and there can be no overt sympathy for him that doesn't run the risk of being considered an insult to those who died, those who survived and the families and community of all involved. But, to a certain degree we understand that mentally ill or disabled are not fully to blame for their actions. But blame MUST be assigned. And thus, the omission of Nancy Lanza.

Of course, eventually, all of the victims names will be forgotten. As is usual with such things, only the killer achieves the dubious, hollow immortality of having their name persist the public's fickle consciousness. But there's something sad in the rush to bury, and perhaps spit upon the grave of, Mrs. Lanza. Normally, the single mother who works to raise a child with mental issues is lionized, at least by those who are aware of her situation. But failure is not tolerated, quickly earning the label of "bad parent" as the mother of Semaj Booker found out. She too, was on the receiving end of public opprobrium for her son's (much less serious) misdeeds, even though she'd asked for help with him.

From the other side of the continent, this isn't an emotionally charged issue for me, and so I can only understand in a vague, detached way the need to cast Mrs. Lanza as callous (or careless) enabler, rather than victim, of her son's actions. Without the emotional aspect, it seems unnecessary, needlessly divisive and symptomatic of a national tendency towards scapegoating, rather than problem-solving.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Kris Kringle, Ladies Man

Insurance doesn't pay for having coal surgically removed.
Dad caught Mommy kissing Santa Claus, and had a fleeting moment of triumph before Saint Nick schooled him in why a junior accountant with a gun was no match for a man whose job it was to visit all corners of the Earth in the middle of the night driving a sleigh full of valuable presents.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


The link to yet another story about the mass shooting in Newtown Connecticut asked a simple question:

Newtown Tragedy: Would A Good God Allow Such Evil?
It's a question that a lot of people have asked over the years. I know that as someone who doesn't believe in deities, some people will consider it anything from inappropriate to insulting that I weigh in on this, but I think that this is the wrong question, and a better one is:
Newtown Tragedy: Why Do We Think That God Should Place Us Above Such Things?
"If God is all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent, why does He allow such misfortunes?" The NPR story asks, before telling us that the word for reconciling this "paradox" is Theodicy, which is then defined as "attempting to justify God's goodness despite the existence of evil and suffering." But it seems to me that something is missing there. In a way, you have to go back to the Taxonomy of God that another NPR reader created and, consulting entry 5c. "God controls everything and everything that happens is a result of her will," reframe the central paradox as: "If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent and in direct control of Earthly events, why does He inflict such misfortunes upon people who do not appear to deserve them?" Otherwise, I don't see the problem here, as I don't understand why the simple fact that, as the bumper sticker says, "'God is good. Evil is real. And God is all powerful," logically leads to: "Pick two." Rabbi Folberg may believe that if "those three propositions as true, then they're logically inconsistent," but I don't. If one can accept that a benevolent God can murder every first born child in the nation of Egypt after hardening the heart of Pharoah (among other things), a simple failure to constant protect humanity from itself and/or the forces of nature shouldn't be considered a divine failure - especially if one believes in the idea of Original Sin. In other words, unless you're of the opinion that God micromanages the world to such a degree that events like the Indian Ocean Tsunami or the Newtown shootings could not have happened without specific divine intervention or permission, why must their occurrence mean that a god cannot be benevolent?

So, as far as I'm concerned, people haven't yet answered the question of why belief in a benevolent deity should mean that we never expect bad things to happen to us. You don't have to be a Bible scholar to understand that God had no problem with the world being unequal and unfair. Under such circumstances, the outbursts of the insane and natural disasters should be considered par for the course.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Laws We Can Agree With

The "Rule of Law" is always a tricky thing, because laws aren't really about preventing undesirable behavior. They're about providing a means for punishing people who are caught. So laws only "prevent" acts to the degree that people are willing to accept the fact that they should respect the law over acting on their inclinations.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued an injunction against the Sea Shepherd conservation group, preventing them from interfering with Japanese whaling vessels. According to the BBC, Sea Shepherd is "questioning the legality of the ruling." It's a common pattern - groups expect legal victories to be binding and point to them as proof of the correctness of their cause, while legal setbacks are proclaimed legally suspect.

A pervasive sense that "Right makes Right" (the idea that the rightness of the ends confers the right to pursue whatever means are chosen) is at the heart of a number of different disputes and controversies. Take immigration into the United States from Latin America. Supporters of more open borders and of the mainly Hispanic undocumented immigrant community basically consider current United States laws on the subject illegitimate, and a lot of the rhetoric around immigration reform from such activists basically calls for either changing the laws to something that current and future migrants can accept, or simply ignoring them.

As it is with a lot of things, however, it is perhaps national governments that are the biggest perpetrators of this - being quick to point out areas where unfriendly governments are in breach of international law, yet never seeming to find their way to accepting that laws should sometimes have adverse consequences for their own ambitions. The United States, while far from the only culprit in such matters, is often conspicuous in its habit of counting as legitimate laws that apply to nations Washington dislikes at the moment while ignoring or protesting those that are inconvenient for itself or its allies.

We don't yet have a way of making a system where individual people, organizations and governments can pick and chose which rules apply to them workable on a larger scale. Until we come up with one we should have a greater expectation that groups we support should either live with the rules as they are written, or go through the process of changing them.

No Good Choice

In Ireland, a change to the nation's abortion laws is afoot after an Indian woman there died after miscarrying. According to the family of Savita Halappanavar, she had requested to be allowed to abort the fetus after developing severe pain.

According to Mr. Halappanavar, when his wife first requested an abortion, hospital staff denied her request, citing the fact that Ireland is a Catholic nation. When asked why this should also apply to Hindus, Mr. Halappanavar relates: "But she said 'I'm sorry, unfortunately it's a Catholic country' and it's the law that they can't abort when the foetus is live."

That may now be about to change. From what I understand from reading the BBC articles on the case, abortion can be considered lawful in circumstances that threaten the life of the mother, including suicide, and this has been the case for 20 years. So what's being considered now, is " legislation to give certainty to doctors as to when terminations can be carried out and under what circumstances."

Unsurprisingly, there is pushback from anti-abortion groups in the country, who claim that Ireland's prohibitions on abortions don't involve a health risk to the mother. The Irish Church is also against such legislation. The driving factor appears to be that the lack of guidance means that all abortions are effectively prohibited, although there does exist what is termed "the British solution;" presumably women traveling to Britain for the procedure. According to the bishops of the Catholic Church in Ireland: "If what is being proposed were to become law, the careful balance between the equal right to life of a mother and her unborn child in current law and medical practice in Ireland would be fundamentally changed. It would pave the way for the direct and intentional killing of unborn children. This can never be morally justified in any circumstances."

Now, I was raised Roman Catholic, and attended a Catholic high school, and my understanding of Church policy was that the first part of the bishops' statement is so trumped by the first as to be very nearly false on it's face. According to Lisa Sowle Cahill, a Catholic theology instructor at Boston college, in a situation where continuing with a pregnancy places the risk of mortality at nearly 100%: "The official church position would mandate that the correct solution would be to let both the mother and the child die." When a nun, administrator of a hospital treating a woman in just this situation approved an abortion, she was excommunicated. Now, when I was a student, back in the 1980's, I'd been taught that the Church didn't expect everyone to stand around and watch two people die, rather than just one, but that if it were a choice as to saving the mother or the child, the mother always lost out. (It seems that things have become more stringent while I was away.) How always sacrificing the mother, let alone allowing both mother and child to die, affords any protection to the mother's right to life is beyond me.

I realize, that as far as the Church is concerned, that clarifying the law is to allow for Evil acts to be committed. But the solution to that is lobby to have the laws changed, even if that means requiring that Ireland pull out of human rights treaties, and taking the public heat that this stance would require. Maintaining a de-facto ban on an otherwise legal medical procedure, while spouting empty rhetoric about how this balances competing interests, isn't an honest way to proceed.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Your Move

So there has been another mass shooting. This time in a grade school in Connecticut. And again there is a clamor for tighter regulation of guns. It's possible to talk about how this is the fault of undiagnosed mental illness. It's possible to talk about how relatively rare mass shootings are. It's possible to talk about how if an adult in the school had been armed, they could have stopped the shootings.

But if this continues, none of that is going to matter. What is going to matter is that people want to feel safe. They feel that the presence of firearms, especially ones that they associate (correctly or not) with military and paramilitary uses, trigger a feeling of being unsafe. And every time there is another mass shooting, and every time they feel that the rate of mass shootings is increasing, they feel more and more unsafe.

There has been a pervasive feeling, among certain segments of the gun-owning population, that President Obama, the United Nations or just "the Gubmint" in general have hatched a hateful plot to take away their weapons and leave them vulnerable to a New World Order that wants to take away their Guns, persecute them for worshiping their God and give their children over to the Gays as sexual playthings. Despite their sometimes laughable fears, the threat to their right to Keep and Bear Arms will not come from the Oval Office, New York or Washington D.C. It is going to come from the parents who fear for their children, the caring people who fear for their spouses and partners and the members of the public in general who fear for themselves. It had become popular for people (many of them the same ones who support gun rights) to say that "Freedom isn't free." And they are right. But Freedom isn't always worth any cost either, especially when it's a freedom that you don't use and don't feel a need to have. And when the apparent price of the freedom of someone else to own weapons becomes to high, people will shed that right to be free of the cost.

If things keep escalating as they are, eventually, something is going to have to be done. And if the public forces the government to do it, it's not going to be pretty. The Federal government, is has been observed, does only two things well - procrastinate and overreact. So when public pressure pushes them into action, it's not going to be a measured or targeted response. It's going to be prying guns from people's cold, dead fingers while their neighbors cheer from across the street.

Those people who believe in the right for citizens to be armed are going to have to start taking the responsibility that this right carries seriously. Pointing out that the vast majority of gun owners are law abiding citizens isn't going to cut it. Suggesting that everyone buy a weapon and learn to use it is ludicrously unrealistic. Blaming the mass media for encouraging copycats by making celebrities out of murderers while the dead are mostly forgotten is pointless. Noting that people have killed as many or more people under similar circumstances with knives is a waste of time. Second amendment or none, if people feel that the price of public access to guns is too high, that access will go away. Thinking the Constitution will protect them will simply leave them in for the same rude awakening that many other groups who relied on it for protection woke up to.

I don't believe that "Gun Control" is going to be as easy as people think it will. But the "War on Terror" is a thing that's difficult to the point of being utterly Quixotic, and it's been going full steam ahead long past the point where I thought it would have been given up for futite, and the "War on Drugs" represents a stubborness that can move mountains. So I have no illusions that once "Gun Control" gets going, no level of money or effort will be spared. So if you're of the opinion that the right to keep and bear arms is important to you, you'd better get to work. The clock is ticking.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Collective Investment

Michigan is in an uproar after majority Republicans in the state legislature, faced with losing seats in November's elections, pushed through a right-to-work law there. President Obama spoke out against such actions.

"These so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have anything to do with economics; they have everything to do with politics," President Obama said.
"What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."
Michigan passes 'right-to-work' legislation
In a nutshell, right-to-work laws are geared towards mandating "open shops," and thus disallowing unions from mandating that workers either join a union or pay union dues or fair-share fees as a condition of remaining employed. ("Closed shops," outlawed by the Labor-Management Relations Act, prevented non-union workers from being hired. "Union shops" allow for workplaces to mandate joining a union within a certain amount of time as a requirement to remain employed. "Agency shops" allow for the collection of dues or fees from non-union workers who could join the union - again as a condition of employment.)

For proponents of the law, it's ostensibly about freedom of association, and not being forced to pay an organization that one doesn't belong to. For opponents of the law, their stand is ostensibly about preventing free-riders and making sure that unions can do their work. Pro right-to-work activists point to the fact that in those states where such laws exist, there tends to be greater employment (although it's not generally possible to separate out the effect of such rules from the raft of other pro-business initiatives that right-to-work states have enacted). Those in favor of maintaining agency shop rules counter that the jobs pay less and are overall less desirable.

In the end, however, it's all about "money." For the Republican lawmakers and business interests who back such legislation, it's all about reducing the ability of unions to spend money in campaigns, by lowering the amount that they take in. For the Democratic lawmakers and labor groups that oppose right-to-work, such laws are designed to tilt the political playing field in favor of deep-pocketed corporations and wealthy individuals who have the money to fund advertising buys during campaign seasons. And so "money" becomes a stand-in for "access to the average voter," who is perceived as politically apathetic to the point of deciding who to vote for solely on who has the greatest number of colorful yard signs or the highest density of slickly-produced television commercials.

In states where agency shops are allowed, unions share with government a nearly unique ability - that of being able to define a good or service as being of value to someone, provide it unasked-for, present the recipient with a bill and then sanction them for non-payment. Whether or not this is actually a good idea as a matter of public policy is lost within the acrimonious debate over the flow of money into politics. Which is a shame, because it is a worthwhile debate to have.

In effect, union dues and fair-share fees are an investment. And like any investment, there should be an expectation of a return. Whether or not employees feel that membership in a union is worthwhile depends on their perception of the costs and benefits. In union and agency shop situations, the calculus includes the fact that opting out means giving up one's job. In an open shop, it doesn't. Instead, it becomes like public broadcasting - the unions have to make a case to non-members that membership bring benefits (tangible or not) that are worth paying for even though it cannot withhold its primary service. One of the problems that the organized labor movement may have is that this appears to be a difficult case to make at times. Dire warnings of a return to the bad old days of rampant labor abuses and unfair practices by employers often seem hyperbolic and distant.

The decline of union membership among American workers demonstrates, perhaps, the idea that unions are less relevant to people today than they used to be, and the spread of right-to-work laws is a part of that - after all, the lawmakers who enact them were usually elected into their offices. Perhaps it's time that we re-opened that public debate again.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

How It Should Be Done

The restaurant business is a tough one. Despite relatively high mark-ups on the actual food, overall margins can be tight. Part of the reason why tipping restaurant wait staff after a sit-down meal is considered a requirement is that restaurant owners push wages down as far as they can. And they still plead poverty at every turn. Which explains comments, after the November elections, from John Schnatter, CEO of Papa John's Pizza and Zane Tankel, CEO of Applebee’s franchisee Apple-Metro that there would be consequences for their workers from the President's re-election, stemming from the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare or just "the federal health care law," would introduce new requirements for them as far as covering their workers. At the same time Darden Restaurants, owners of Red Lobster and the Olive Garden (among others), started testing new staffing patterns that would keep employees below the 30-hour work weeks that would make them eligible for new coverage, and Denny's franchise owner John Metz announced that prices would rise by 5%, and employee hours would be cut in response to the law.

If this was meant to be attempt to marshal public anger, it worked. Except for the minor detail that the anger was directed at the restauranteurs, and not the Obama Administration. According to YouGov BrandIndex Papa John's and Applebees both suffered significant downturns in public opinion after their anti-ACA statements. Denny's saw it's already low rating fall the rest of the way, hitting zero before rebounding. And Darden is backing away from its new staffing plans after announcing that earnings were plummeting, in part because of negative publicity.

What should we think about this? "Bravo." This is the way that things are supposed to work. The public votes with their feet and their wallets to support companies that behave in a way that they approve of, and to punish those that don't toe the line. Sure, it has it's downsides, but it's better than a constant littany of new government regulations. Not that government regulations are, in and of themselves a bad thing, but if a problem can be solved without the need to make the already massive federal code even larger, then we should take it. Of course, this could simply lead to more hiding behind trade associations, rather than braving the public themselves, but still it lets them know that business is all about the customers. Seeking to enlist them in crusades against things those same customers find worthwhile is a bad idea.

The Greatest

Due to an unwise level of incaution on my part, I was roped into a "debate" about the existence of God. And one of the debaters threw out an charge that I'd heard many time before.

"So," he'd said to one of the participants who'd claimed disbelief, "you're arrogant enough to claim that there is nothing in the Universe greater than yourself?"

This escalation in the rhetoric of the "debate" was interesting, mainly because it was the first time in my experience that the charge of "arrogance" had been made explicit - normally the "nothing greater in the Universe" question stood on its own, and if it was charged that an accusation of arrogance had been made, it could be plausibly denied. Of course, it's a common facet of human nature to attribute a failure to understand something a given individual sees as self-evident to a certain level of moral deficiency, even as it's common to deny having made such an attribution.

I've always found upshot of this common Christian rhetorical device, the idea that of all the things in the Universe, mankind is second only to God, to be curious, mainly because it seems to me to be so clearly incorrect. Consider - were I to snap my fingers right now, and the Sun were to be immediately reduced to a cold, dark mass in the center of our solar system, life on Earth would start to suck - a lot - in about the next eight minutes. And, as clever a species as we are, we'd be completely and utterly boned - the Extinction Express would be rolling along. On the other hand, were I to snap my fingers and trigger Life After People, eight minutes in, the Sun would be completely unperturbed. Winner: Sun. If that doesn't count as being greater than humanity, I could always ramp it up a notch - or twelve. Gamma-ray bursts, anyone? Of course, I try to avoid assigning any moral, ethical or intellectual weight to this (not that I was successful the other day), as it's really just a way of looking at the world, and in the grand scheme of things, our opinions are pretty worthless things.

The place that we see for ourselves in the Universe is one of those things that goes beyond science and religion. To a degree, it's part of the emotionally freighted concepts that we have of what it means to be "human," and all that this entails. As such, it's never the objective thing that we often present it as, whether or not we realize it.

Friday, December 7, 2012


Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse at King Edward VII hospital who passed along a hoax call from a pair of Australian disk jockeys pretending to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles has been found dead. I find myself wondering if there is some sort of cultural issue at work, as neither the BBC story nor the NPR radio story that I heard comes out and says that Mrs. Saldanha took her own life, despite very strongly hinting that this was the case. There's no mystery that news outlets aren't simply coming out and saying that it was a suicide - after all, the investigation likely isn't completed yet. But rather than say even that, there seems to be a lot of dancing around the subject, and that's what I don't understand.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


"I can't let the armchair critics bother me," [R Umar Abbasi] continues. "They were not there. They have no idea how very quickly it happened."
New York Post photographer defiant over subway-death image
Mr. Abbasi has found himself in the middle of a teapot tempest, driven by moral panic-driven over the publication of a photograph of the impending demise of one Ki-Suck Han, who was pushed onto New York City subway tracks; allegedly by a Naeem Davis. If you haven't seen the photograph, it shows Mr. Han standing at the edge of the platform, attempting to climb up, as an oncoming train remorselessly bears down on him. The photograph was published on the front page of the New York Post, with a headline that can only be described as sensationalistic beyond all taste. Mr. Abbasi has weathered storms of criticism from people who now seem to be in a hurry to prove their ethical bona fides by loudly proclaiming that being paid for a photograph of someone about to die is the height of the crass exploitation of man by man. Personally, if this is the worst example of humanity that most of us encounter between now and the New Year, we're more fortunate that we deserve.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Everything But the Kitchen Sink

"Why," I sometimes wonder, "are cigarettes still legal?"

When you look at the lengths that governments, prodded by the public health community, go through to make smoking expensive, inconvenient and socially undesirable, I don't understand why there isn't a greater push to simply ban them outright. Australia recently enacted rules that demand that all cigarettes be sold in generic packaging - the only adornment, if you can call it that, being government mandated graphic pictures of negative health outcomes caused by lighting up. Ostensibly, the rationale is to "de-glamorize" smoking. Personally, this makes little sense to me - I've seen plenty of cigarette packages in my day. I don't recall any of them being, in and of themselves, such compelling objects d'art that I was seized with the desire to tear them open and set the contents on fire. Apparently, I'm not the only one.

Anti-smoking lobbyists like Anne Jones know that packaging changes alone won't significantly curb smoking, especially among established smokers.
So... if the goal is to create a smoke-free society, why implement measures that don't work? Why not simply make the production, transport and sale of cigarettes illegal? It's been done for things much less dangerous than tobacco. I understand the idea that tobacco industry is powerful, and has a lot of money, lobbyists and the like, but there seems to be a strange disconnect in play. Public-health-minded governments want to reduce the rate of smoking - to zero to hear them say it, yet they don't want to be the ones who actually put an end to the practice, preferring to simply make smokers so miserable that they do it themselves. This desire to have things both ways doesn't strike me as really workable.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Going Around

“And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded.”
Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice on the successful Palestinian bid to become a nonmember observer state of the United Nations.
U.N. Assembly, in Blow to U.S., Elevates Status of Palestine

“These activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on renewed construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Housing Move in Israel Seen as Setback for a Two-State Plan
Leave aside whether or not one feels that either or both sides are entitled to the actions that they've recently taken. The fact of the matter is that each side comes across as intent on thumbing their noses at the other.

Perhaps the single biggest obstacle to an agreement is that it really doesn't appear to be in the interests of either side to work with the other. For starters, it's difficult to look at the back-and-forth between the two sides and conclude that either of them really has any faith in the other to either bargain in good faith or live up to any agreements reached. Secondly, both sides have political constituencies that are opposed to the entire process. (Even if the factions on both sides who believe that they are the sole rightful owners of the entirety of the former Mandate of Palestine are in the minority, they are loud, vocal and active minorities. And in politics, that counts for a lot. While there may very well be Israelis and Palestinians who, were they to sit down in a room together, could hammer out a workable compromise, if they can't get into office on that because the hard-liners mobilize the votes to prevent it, it does no-one any good.) And both sides think it's worthwhile to go for the win. Compromise is what happens when people are tired of fighting - one side realizes that it can't win, and the other concludes that complete victory isn't worth the added costs. That both sides continue to antagonize the other means that they aren't really at that point.

Neither side is going to get what it wants. The simple realities of human nature are arrayed against them. Perhaps what this needs is a change in approach. Because no-one wants to be involved, Israel and Palestine simply hammer away at one another without making any progress. Maybe what needs to happen is that a different nation - say, Japan - calls in the top three allies of each side, and has THEM work out a compromise, with the idea that when one is reached, the allies of the two parties will be on the hook for doing the arm-twisting required to make each side accept.

Okay, so that's not the best idea. But it can't do any worse than what we have happening now. And considering that the international community started with without consulting with either side, maybe that's what needed to end it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


I don't know if "menkhesis" is a real word, or if I've spelled it correctly. I came across it in a book some time ago, and it was presented as an antiquated term for what we would now call hypnosis. According to the text, it is best translated into English as "the taking away of responsibility," and this is what made if of interest to me, as it seems that American society has developed a habit, from time to time, of looking for ways to avoid taking responsibility.

Jim Zarroli: [...] Elena Seyer(ph) says she doesn't exactly like the idea of shopping on Thursday night when people should be with their families.
Elena Seyer: I feel bad for the employees who happen to work on Thanksgiving, but with the economy, you're kind of forced to have to do it. You know, if you can find something $100 cheaper, you kind of have to do it.
Holiday Season May Be A Good One For U.S. Retailers
Of course, no one sees low prices on consumer goods as being an actual form of coercion. What's really at work here is the process of becoming just another puppet, with a confluence of perceived poverty and the desire for the trappings or appearance of affluence pulling the strings. But the reluctance to own up to the willingness to have others spend the holidays away from their families in exchange for less expensive goods doesn't serve us well. If we're going to do these things, we need to own them. Ducking our choices makes it difficult to discuss them, and therefore to understand their causes and their effects.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanks A Lot

With today being Thanksgiving Day here in the United States, we're supposed to take some time to remember what we're thankful for. As I came to understand American history better, I became more and more conflicted about Thanksgiving. Partly because, in my opinion, our supposed thankfulness has become a mixture of banal platitudes and pseudo-religious groveling. But partly because we don't really think about what it all means, in the big picture.

The United States exists because the European settlers and their descendants who ranged across the continent saw vast tracks of open land. The native peoples weren't really even regarded as people - you could make the case that they were mainly seen as uppity wildlife. And the first Thanksgiving came about mainly because some of those same native peoples had more compassion than foresight. The "endless opportunities" that drew, and still draw, people to the United States (and, for that matter, to other destinations in the Americas) looking for a new and better life were paid for with an awful lot of blood and death. The native peoples who once populated the whole of the United States were on the wrong end of an amazingly raw deal, and most of what made the country arguably the foremost power in all of history mainly passed them by. And it seems that we've swept all of that under the rug, in favor of a feel-good holiday that's little more than a gateway to the world's largest shopping spree.

While it's hard to imagine that one could write a thanks to all of the people (natives and otherwise) who paid very high prices for the position that we're in now without appearing to simply channel the bitterness of history's losers, that shouldn't stop us from acknowledging how the flow of history brought us to this point. That doesn't mean needing to see ourselves as complicit in what we now (sometimes, anyway) regard as the crimes of others. Just that we should spare some thought for those that wound up footing the bill for opportunities that they themselves were denied.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Camera Clueless

Sony Australia sent "Gary Heery, professional photographer," out to see if he could find the "DSLR Clueless;" people Sony defines as those who have "all the gear and no idea." Of course, Mr. Heery manages to find a group of people with Nikon and Canon cameras who leave the camera on "auto" all the time or otherwise basically don't know what they're doing. These good sports are mocked on camera with signs such as "Unfit to DSLR" and "DSLR Gear - No Idea." The point is a fairly simple one - promote their Alpha NEX-series cameras by creating the impression that Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras are too difficult, complicated and heavy for the average shutterbug.

The First Victim...
Surprisingly, despite the fact that Sony also sells DSLRs, which are supposed to "Take your photography to the next level" and provide "Pro features and top technologies," none of the DSLR Clueless seem to own them - even though the defining characteristic of the type is a belief (based on just such puffery) that it's the gear, and not the wielder, that makes the difference. And, predictably, Sony disabled comments on the video to prevent some wag from making that point - or asking why, if DSLRs are so awful, Sony bothers to sell them.

Most people who have made it a point to understand the technology of cameras know that eventually, the consumer DSLR market will likely fade to a few special-purpose niches, especially once Nikon gets their mirrorless offering together and Canon gets on board (or one or both fall by the wayside as another company eats their lunch). There are any number of reasons why the non-SLR cameras are excellent choices for the sort of general-purpose photography that most people engage in. If the Sony ads had addressed these issues, that would be one thing. Instead, they went after the idea that many SLR users are clueless n00bs who don’t know one end of a camera from the other, and so people should buy Sony mirrorless cameras instead. To a degree, I get it – it’s about making a catchy video that might go “viral” on the Internet. Mocking ignorant/stupid people tends to garner more publicity than dry technical-speak. But if someone who doesn't know what DSRL means is in over their head owning one, I don't see how that situation would be any better if they shelled out roughly the same amount of money for a MILC*. After all, it's not like a mirrorless camera is any better than one with a mirror if you don't know enough to change the default settings, or otherwise let the camera do all the thinking. Sure, they're smaller and lighter - and so I guess if you're going to suck, you may as well avoid straining yourself while you're at it...

Rather than pitching a product on: “This will suit your needs, and provide some advantages over the competition,” and incidentally being funny about it, Sony opted for “Buy our stuff so people (including us) don’t point and laugh at you,” and in the meantime, seemed to add a subtext of “Photography is hard, and you’re not smart enough to use the equipment that other companies (or we ourselves) sell.” I don’t think that this approach worked for Apple, and it seems that Sony is simply the latest company to conflate “moderately amusing” with “effectively communicates a value proposition.”

You. According to Sony.
*Mirrorless Interchangable-Lens Camera, for the MILC-Clueless among you. The main difference is that MILC cameras do not have optical viewfinders, so there is no need to have a mirror in the camera that allows you to look out through the lens. Even if the camera has a viewfinder, it shows you a smaller version of what the LCD screen on the back of the camera shows you, in the same way that the larger "point-and-shoot" cameras do. This allows the bodies to be much smaller, and simpler mechanically. This doesn't, however, make them automatically less feature-rich or easier to use.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


The following analysis develops a theory for why terrorist groups—especially ones that primarily target civilians—do not achieve their policy objectives. The basic contention is that civilian-centric terrorist groups fail to coerce because they miscommunicate their policy objectives. Even when a terrorist group has limited, ambiguous, or idiosyncratic objectives, target countries infer from attacks on their civilians that the group wants to destroy these countries’ values, society, or both. Because countries are reluctant to appease groups that are believed to harbor maximalist objectives, CCTGs are unable to win political concessions.
"Why Terrorism Does Not Work" Max Abrahms
I find myself going back to read this paper every time things in the Middle East escalate. I don't really know why I do this, because it simply makes me depressed. While the plight of the Palestinians garners a certain level of international sympathy for their willingness (if you can call it that) to gamely suffer yet another ass-beating at the hands of the Israeli military every time hostilities reach a boiling point, the fact of the matter is that the path that Hamas, Hezbollah, et al have chosen is simply has yet to work. For them, or for anyone else. During the time period covered by Mr. Abrahms paper, the success rate of groups achieving their stated policy objectives through attacks on primarily civilian targets was 0%.

By the same token, because groups like Hamas are not formal military bodies, and do not have bases and barracks that may be easily targeted, Israeli attacks on them can lead to numbers of civilian casualties (Although it seems that sometimes, the definition of "civilian" is anyone who didn't have a weapon in their hand right at the moment a bomb or missile blew them to smithereens.), thus leading the Palestinians (and others, for that matter) to infer that Israel wants to destroy Palestine's values, society, or both. And this creates a situation where concessions on the part of Palestinian leadership are viewed as appeasement of a hostile other that "doesn't understand peace."

And so the cycle of useless violence continues. The Palestinians, it must be said, were on the receiving end of a raw deal. But even if that could be undone, launching rockets and sending bombers into Israel is not going to manage that. And so people die, and keep dying, in vain.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bad Education

According to the Indian textbook " New Healthway: Health, Hygiene, Physiology, Safety, Sex Education, Games and Exercises:"

  • Non-vegetarians, "easily cheat, tell lies, they forget promises, they are dishonest and tell bad words, steal, fight and turn to violence and commit sex crimes."
  • "It is the waste products which largely produce the flavour of meat."
  • "[The Japanese] are vegetarians and live longer than most other peoples. The generous use of green leafy vegetables, soya beans and grams has helped the people to maintain vigour, strength and endurance throughout the centuries."
  • "The Arabs who helped in constructing the Suez Canal lived on wheat and dates and were superior to the beef-fed Englishmen engaged in the same work."
  • "[T]he Creator of this Universe did not include meat in the original diet for Adam and Eve. He gave them fruits, nuts and vegetables."
  • "To get married without a bad name is a dream of every young girl."
  • The Inuit are "lazy, sluggish and short-lived", because they live on "a diet largely of meat."
Because even students in the Third World should have access to ideological, inaccurate textbooks.

The Way Forward

Despite the fact that an electoral map - especially one that breaks things down by counties - will show you that large swaths of the nation lean Republican, the Grand Old Party couldn't manage to unseat the President, gain a majority in the Senate, or hold on to all of the seats they had in the House of Representatives. This despite the relatively low approval ratings of President Obama, and a constant drumbeat of optimism from Republicans across the country.

So, after an election that stunned Republicans, but seemed to surprise no-one who actually keep an eye on the public, the soul-searching, self-flagellation and recriminations begin.

Here's a dirty little secret about electoral politics in the United States of America - a lot of people don't follow politics or "the issues" closely enough to really make what you'd consider an informed choice. This isn't surprising. There are many, many more issues out there than most of us encounter on a daily basis, and most of us aren't paid to be political analysts. So most people have a general idea about things that informs a partisan affiliation, and they decide whether or not it's worthwhile to show up at the polls. In a nutshell, the Republicans simply couldn't get enough people do decide to show up at the polls. This is in large part because the current GOP has a large number of people in it who appeal to a core group of voters mainly by demonizing everyone else. And that core group just isn't big enough.

In the end, the Republicans are going to have to come to terms with the fact that they need to let go of the short term to position themselves for the long term. And that means allowing both the message and the platform to change to be in line with a greater percentage of the voting public. It's going to be painful. The extremists in the party are going to feel betrayed, and they aren't going to want to see their priorities let go. And the loss of those votes means that the Democrats are going to run things for a while. But the world won't end. Okay, so the Democrats believe in a broader distribution of wealth, and generally have trouble finding any other way to get their beyond taxing one group to provide benefits to another. As long as they don't let the borrowing get too far out of hand, the country will still be here when they are done. And so once the Republicans have excised the divisive parts of their party and platform, and can start working their way back into the levers of power, they can show people how their method would work. And if it's perceived as better, people will embrace it. It's time to get past the idea that partisan affiliation is a stand-in for an IQ test, or a measure of laziness and greed. It takes a well-articulated platform the communicates sound policies at the right time to get into office. Mistaking ideological purity for principled stands doesn't get you there. Sooner or later, someone will realize that. Whether or not it's the current Republican Party or a different group entirely is the only question.

The Blame Game

Don't Worry. They'll Be Back.
Now that Hostess Brands has (temporarily) closed up shop, the recriminations and blaming have started. Most of it is misplaced.

For starters, the reason why Hostess is not in business as I write this (a situation I expect to see change before not too long) is because the management team of the company chose to shut it down. End. It wasn't forced into liquidation by creditors or clobbered by market forces. The management team decided, honestly or cynically, that they couldn't be profitable with the current cost structure, so they closed up shop. They had every right to do so. The point can be made that they had some sort of moral obligation to their workforce to keep the doors open as long as possible, but no laws were broken when management decided to pack it in.

Okay, with that out of the way, you can debate whether or not the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union was wise to stay out on strike with the company threatening to close the company down and simply lay everyone off. Again, they had every right to go out on strike. The point can be made that they had some sort of moral obligation to their members to prevent a worst-case scenario, but no laws were broken. One thing that's worth keeping in mind is that "the Union" is actually a different organization than "the people who worked in Hostess' bakeries," and because of this, their interests don't always align 100%. While this turn of events sucks for the workers, it may actually turn out to be a good thing for the union. And it was, to a degree, to be expected. Strikes are successful to the degree that they a) deprive a company of skills and/or labor that cannot be replaced and b) have the ability to cause harm to the company. If Hostess could have operated indefinitely without its union workforce being on the job, a strike would have been utterly pointless, except perhaps in the Court of Public Opinion. (But when it come to cheap junk food versus the American Worker, smart money always bets the public at large sides with Twinkies.) For my part, I would be unsurprised to find that organized labor as a whole seeks to find ways to make an example of Hostess when they sit down with other employers.

It's only if you perceive the sole aim of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union to be the preservation of some level on income for the workers at Hostess does the union become blameworthy for a miscalculation. But even then, this is how games of Chicken are played. The threat of a collision is what makes them relevant.

Monday, November 12, 2012


There have been plenty of calls for a more "trustworthy" media, and an essay where Craig Newmark opines: "The press should be the immune system of democracy," is simply one more on the pile. But the fact of the matter is that "the media" is a collection of businesses, each with a customer base that it must attend to. And any number of internet commentators have made an important point about "free" media - if you're not paying for it, you're not the customer - you're part of the product.

It's nice for us to sit back and lament the current state of the news media. But the market forces that Mr. Newmark reference have lead us to where we are today, a media landscape that concerns itself mainly with attracting the largest audience, which in turn influences advertising, which in turn pays the bills.

When you look at those information sources that are really invested in being trustworthy, one notes that they all have something in common - people are basing important decisions on the information that is being presented. Whether it's financial information, or a surf report - when people are deciding what to do, and what to spend money on, based on the information they receive, they actively vote with their feet (and their wallets) when the information is not up to snuff. This is not normally an issue for the typical media outlet. If a local newspaper or broadcaster mangles the details of someone's life, or allows a candidate to skate by after making a dubious statement, they're not going to have one hundred thousand angry people switching to a new source because their business suffered or they missed an important opportunity. The simple truth of the matter is that most of us don't really need cable news or drive-time radio to be accurate. There's nothing riding on it. These low stakes, more than anything else, are the issue, and this is what drives the gray area between information and entertainment.

For the press to be important as "the immune system of democracy" there has to be a relevant, personal and immediate cost to being ill. For most of us, there isn't. Many of the problems that good-governance activists decry are, a) for many people, abstract and opaque, b) only really an issue for a minority of the public and/or c) have been brewing for years, if not decades. (By the same token, we're not going to fix them in any given single term of office for any particular political figure.) The constituency for putting in the work to fix any particular problem, therefore, is rarely, if ever, larger than the constituency for the status quo. Therefore, there isn't a large enough constituency for aggressively making sure that media coverage sticks to, and promotes, the facts.

In a society driven by polarization, the choice of whether or not to fact-check, and how vigorously to dig for the facts of the matter is often viewed as being indicative of taking sides. And many people in the United States today are all for that - as long as their side is the one taken. From where I stand, people's ethical perceptions are driven just as much by ideology as anything else - once people have chosen sides, the "out group" is seen as more ethically suspect than the "in group." Comments following Mr. Newmark's post were very revealing of that.

In the end, the press is not the problem - we are. The press is a tool. We must be the ones to wield it, and do so well.

Melding Movements

"If we do not become the movement of younger Americans and Hispanic Americans and any number of other Americans, then we will just become a retirement community," [...] says [Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary], "And that cannot, _that cannot_, serve the cause of Christ."
For Religious Conservatives, Election Was A 'Disaster'
It struck me, upon reading this, that Mr. Mohler may have his work cut out for him, because for the older, white Americans that currently form the core of the evangelical community in the United States, it's not just that they are out to serve the cause of Christ. It's that, to a certain degree, they understand that the cause of Christ serves them. To expand the evangelical movement into the ranks of non-evangelical youth and minorities, evangelicals are going to have to demonstrate that the cause of Christ serves _them_, too. This is going to mean that the difficult task of melding a number of communities into a coherent whole is ahead, and I do not envy them that, as it is a task made more difficult by the fact that many Americans are notorious for seeing moral turpitude in difference.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Jump, Jump

"[P]articularly important given the current state of the economy, immediate spending cuts or tax increases would represent an added drag on the weak economic expansion."
Congressional Budget Office. "Economic Effects of Reducing the Fiscal Restraint That Is Scheduled to Occur in 2013" May 2012.
Despite the fact that this report was prepared in May of this year, an accurate conviction that Congress would not move to deal with the "Fiscal Cliff," as it has been named, until after the November elections has kept most news outlets quiet on the topic until now. But now that President Obama has fended off the Republican challenge, the alarm bells are ringing, long, loudly and often.

"The fiscal cliff as a whole, if it went into effect for all of next year, could result in a drop of 0.5% in real gross domestic product, according to the CBO. And that contraction could push unemployment to 9.1% by the end of 2013," says CNN.

But it turns out that it's not all doom and gloom. After all, according to NPR: "In today's report, the CBO says if Congress does nothing and the U.S. jumps off the fiscal cliff, it would result in a huge reduction of the deficit. It would go from $1.1 trillion to $200 billion in 2022. The debt would decline to 58 percent of the GDP in 2022."

So why not do it? After all, as the CBO points out: "If all current policies were extended for a prolonged period, federal debt held by the public—currently about 70 percent of GDP, its highest mark since 1950—would continue to rise much faster than GDP. Such a path for federal debt could not be sustained indefinitely, and policy changes would be required at some point."

So it's not IF we go over the "Fiscal Cliff," but when. The CBO goes on to say: "The more that debt increased before policies were changed, the greater would be the negative consequences. Large budget deficits would reduce national saving, thereby curtailing investment in productive capital and diminishing future output and income. Interest payments on the debt would consume a growing share of the federal budget, eventually requiring either higher taxes or a reduction in government benefits and services."

And it's not as though the consequences would be the end of the world. "The Greek government had forecast a fall in gross domestic product of 'only' 3.8 per cent, but the troika [the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank] believes the fall in GDP is more likely to be of the order of 5 per cent, according to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini," says the Financial Times. And the current unemployment rate is 25.4%. And while Greece may not exactly be a model nation at this point, it's still there. The consequences of the Fiscal Cliff aren't projected to be anywhere nearly as dire. Of course, if we let things go far enough, the eventual consequences could be.

So maybe it's better to take that medicine now. Because it's only going to be more bitter later.

Monday, November 5, 2012

All Together Now

It was a statement that seemed off the moment I saw it.

Voters call for common-sense bipartisanship,[...]”

Mainly because it seemed so clearly untrue. In fact, in the very story that the words “common-sense bipartisanship” hyperlinked to, NPR's correspondent had mentioned research about bipartisanship from one Neil Malhotra “His research,” we are told in that piece, “suggests that most voters like the idea of bipartisanship in the abstract but want their individual representatives to be uncompromisingly partisan.” This does not strike me as a “call for common-sense bipartisanship” on the part of most of the voting public. So while voters may desire bipartisan compromise in the abstract, what they don't desire are their own values and priorities being traded away in the service of coming to a grand bargain. Instead, what they desire is that member of the political opposition knuckle under. It's the epitome of “Let's compromise - do it my way.” Or, as Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock put it after winning the Republican primary: “What I’ve said about compromise, I hope to build a conservative majority so bipartisanship becomes Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government, reduce the bureaucracy, and get America moving again.” Later in the interview, he continued: “Well, the fact is, you never compromise on principles [...] What has motivated many people to get out and work for us and we are at that point where one side or the other has to win this argument. One side or the other will dominate.”

If “breaking the partisan fever may require the party that loses the White House this time to decide it must moderate its message, in order to appeal not just to core supporters, but to a greater share of the electorate,” we're not likely to see it, because that “greater share of the electorate” can't turn out in closed primary elections or for caucuses, and is unlikely to go to the polls even in open primaries. So it's the party faithful (like those who elected Mourdock over the more moderate Richard Lugar) that pick who runs in general elections, and if you cross them (by, say, being a moderate who's ready, willing and able to soften your position on things) they'll term you a traitor and find someone who'll run against you. So until the voters of the party that loses the White House decide that moderation is the answer, and back up their alleged “calls” for bipartisanship and compromise with votes for people who express a willingness to engage in them, we're liable to see more partisan gridlock.

On would expect NPR, or any other serious news outlet that covers politics, to understand this. To me, it seem that this is part of the unwillingness to publicly own up to the truth about the voting public in the United States, so as not to alienate people who are motivated to work for people like Richard Mourdock, yet who want to see themselves as simply pushing “common-sense” rather than seeking to force the rest of nation to go along with them. Note that this not meant to impugn their motives in doing so. My friend Ben (as I have noted before) once told me that he doubted the convictions of anyone who was unwilling to force anyone into doing what they claimed to believe was the right thing. And as political rhetoric has taken the pandering tack that the “principles” of the audience are all that stand between the nation and complete disintegration (or divine wrath) people's understandings of the stakes have grown, and with them their willingness to impose themselves on others.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


One of the stereotypical features of the American political left is a disdain for the intellect of the American political right. The comments around the Huffington Post story "Most Republicans Believe In Demon Possession, Less Than Half Believe In Climate Change: Report" illustrate this nicely. Charges of "intellectual laziness," fears of "slipping back into the Dark Ages" and interjections of "Yikes!" are prominent in the comments section that follows the peice.

But what often appears to be a level of intellectual snobbery masks a fear of being marginalized, just as the moral snobbery of the right does. But it's also indicative of a certain ignorance of how others think.

If the headline started with "Most Republicans Think Divine Miracles Are Real" the likely response would have been "and what else is new?" An overwhelming number of Americans are self-proclaimed Christians, and a belief that God can directly intervene in Earthly affairs is more or less an article of that faith. Reading the Bible (no matter which version one chooses) reveals stories of both God creating miracles and demons possessing people. After all, there are several stories of Jesus going around casting demons out of people and animals. So, if you believe that Jesus could feed a multitude of people with a handful of fish and loaves of bread, why should the idea that demons can possess people be out of bounds? After all, from the perspective of science, neither scenario is particularly plausible. While the left often complains that religious conservatives are selective about the parts of the Bible they want to believe in, the issue isn't the cherry-picking - it's that the left wants the right to pick the same religiously-progressive cherries they do, believing that their cutting-room edits to the Bible are self-evident.

As for climate change, climate denial is a better thing than one might think it is - as it indicates acceptance of the underlying assumption that if human activities are disrupting the climate, then the people doing the disrupting have an obligation to stop. If the Huffington Post headline had read "Less Than Half Believe Climate Change Is Worth Giving A Crap About" then, perhaps the left would have reason to be worried, as there would a large constituency for simply allowing disastrous consequences to occur. The current stance of the political right on anthropogenic global climate change is primarily an ideological one, designed to avoid the economic disruption (i.e., lowered standards of living) that would come from a rapid push to eliminate fossil fuels over a relatively short timeframe, and the (likely correct) belief that emerging economies would blow off any efforts in that area in the name of protecting their own economies. Find a way to blame climate change on China and India, and set American firms up to make billions in profits by halting it, and Republicans would be on board.

And it isn't as if Democrats are believers in the ironclad correctness of "science." When NPR's Planet Money blog ran a story (with a suitably catchy, yet bogus, headline) on the fact that economists think that rules against price gouging aren't a good thing, it didn't take long for one commenter to opine that economists are "brain damaged," and for another to claim that the economists surveyed valued free markets over people's lives. So the idea that proper science is that which agrees with one's predefined worldview is not limited to either side.

In the end, both sides refer to the other as stupid because it easier than understanding where the other is coming from, and it justifies fantasizing about (or action on) limiting enfranchisement to only those who are "right thinking" enough to vote "correctly." Neither of these are particularly worthwhile.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Be. Shameless.

Recently, there has been an uptick on Google+ (in my own Stream, anyway) in chatter about love, respect, understanding, et cetera. Generally speaking, it's centered around the idea that there is a certain requirement to hold others in at a least a neutral, if not positive, regard. Whether it's an obligation on the part of self-proclaimed Christians to love all other people on Earth (regardless of what one thinks the Bible actually says about such things), the necessity of ending the use of the word "retarded" to refer to people with intellectual development disorders or a call to be more civil in political discourse, people are talking about it. And they're talking about remedies for it, perhaps simply keeping one's mouth shut on the one hand, or more prayer on the other.

In my own opinion, there is a fairly simple (on paper, anyway) way to do away with the impulse to intentionally disrespect or denigrate others. Learn to unconditionally accept oneself. When you can look in the mirror and have no criticisms of the person you see there, you will have no reason to look at anyone and have no criticisms of them, either. When you can contemplate anything that you might do, or anyone you might become, and not feel fear at that eventuality, others will not provoke fear in you. When you can understand that no matter what might befall you, there is no objective reason why it shouldn't have happened to you, you may go through life without anger at the rest of the world. When you accept that you have no control over what other people think of you, or anything else, it's easier to not become invested in what others think. When you can look at yourself and be complete, you will be able to release the things you surround yourself with, without feeling diminished. When you can see the distinction between the choices you make, and the person that you are, you will be able to understand that others have choices, and lose the inclination to judge.

Of course, this means learning to not heed one's Inner Critic, that cacophony of (familiar, if you listen to them) voices that lives in our heads and tells us that we are not worthy. You know the one, it tells you that "all people you know are local competitors who have better luck than you." It feeds on criticism (it is your Inner Critic, after all), shame, fear, anger, jealously, et cetera. It's what gives negative mindpsace a mind of its own. But it's also not real, just as it (usually) isn't a literal voice in your head.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that this is easy. My own Inner Critic and I have been at it for years now, and just when I think I've managed to subdue it, I find another piece of it, hidden in a coping mechanism. I've noticed that the more I realize that it's not good for me, and attempt to reason my way free of it, the more it asserts itself, triggering on more and more trivial things in an effort to regain control. But I think I'm getting there. Of course, this is a "do, or do not" circumstance. But either way, I'm okay with it.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Heckler's Censor

The annual Halloween conversation surrounding race and costumes has become as much a part of the holiday tradition as trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving and sexy-everything getups.
Race and the Halloween Mask of Ignorance
Well, sexy-everything-but-non-white-people getups, anyway. The whole point behind the article is that dressing up as a negative ethnic stereotype, or, for that matter, just about anyone who isn't white "don't fly." If "culture costumes," as they are referred to, "tend to refer to very one-dimensional caricatures that are not at all authentic," and thus "these choices 'normalize whiteness' as the soccer mom or businessman in everyday clothes, thereby reinforcing inaccurate ideas about totally distinct racial and cultural communities," why does this only attach to white people who dress up as non-whites? The idea that Whites should find this practice as offensive as anyone else is conspicuous in its absence. Doesn't the Asian woman who slips into a costume designed to evoke a Scotswoman-cum-whore make a choice that "fits with a larger reality where, for the majority of [non-]whites, there's something pleasurable and empowering in imagining the beautiful [white] princesses in the past, and as sexual objects to be consumed?"
Utterly racist
This woman projects a stereotype of Asian women as hypersexualized self-propelled sex toys.
I suspect not. And the reason, I've come to believe, is simple. One of the points made in the captions to the slideshow, "9 Bad Excuses for Racist Costumes" and in the article itself, is that it doesn't matter what the person wearing the costume thinks, or is attempting to do.
But it's not just the mindset of the college kid painting on the blackface before the keg party, the young woman hitting the dance floor as a "Seductive Squaw" or the suburban mom handing out candy as a geisha that matters, says Stephanie Troutman, assistant professor of women's and gender studies and African and African-American studies at Berea College in Kentucky. What's often lost in the discussion of the arguably innocent goals that inspire these costumes and the freedom of expression that allows them, she says, is the idea that "the context, the history and the signifiers matter," and that "we have to look at the result versus the intention."
In other words, these costumes create or reinforce a feeling in the people being "mocked" that they are second-class citizens, sex objects and or criminals, and that matter more than the fact the person wearing the costume intends none of these things. Except, it seems for white people, who are immune from this sort of thing. Part of "white privilege" is the idea that a woman of Scots descent who sees an Asian woman dressed in a slatternly mockery of a tartan doesn't have an idea that an image of her as a sex object to be consumed is being kindled or stoked in the minds of the non-white people who see her thereafter. (And after all, if she does, it's because she's a racist anyway.)
Nothing wrong here
This woman, apparently, just wants to be Scottish for a day.
It may not be possible for many non-whites to adopt, in the near term, the money and the cultural preferences that white people have typically (or stereotypically) enjoyed, but we can, and should, adopt an attitude of not being caught up in what others think of us. There's a reason why there's no equivalent term for whites that carries the same level of disrespect that words like "Nigger," "Spic" and "Chink" do. Whites, for the most part, don't care what we think of them. It's somewhat possible to injure their feelings by referring to them as "racists," but they don't allow any word that would be used as a slur against them to get under their skin as we are often taught to do. Despite all of the negative connotations of the old South, it's impossible to use a single word to shame a white person with that history. For them, that was then (as was the day before yesterday, for that matter) and this is now. When a white person calls me Nigger, I am expected to feel the shame of a history of being oppressed, regardless of the context or the intention of the speaker. Most whites are simply not taught to feel shame based on my potential opinion of people who died a century or more ago, who just happen to share a skin tone with them, regardless of how vile they themselves feel those people were.

And consider; if I dress as a pimp for Halloween, I'm "appropriating other people of color who are unlike [my]self," and being offensive to other American blacks. But despite all of the opprobrium, disdain and outright hatred reserved for the Nazis, were I to put on the costume of a Gestapo officer, it would be considered offensive to Jews, even if I channeled "You Natzy Spy!" in the doing. Perhaps, were I be a hillbilly or a redneck, would someone be offended on behalf of whites, but only because I sided against oppressed and mocked poor people instead of the bourgeoisie that are our (sometime) "common  enemies."

We have to break out of this desire to create a "heckler's censor," where we allow others to determine our self-images, and then demand that they portray us only as we wish to be seen. Not out of "fairness" to whites - our problem is already that they need nothing from us in that regard. But if we continue to need something from them, we abdicate our validation and worthiness to people who, like us, have themselves to look out for.

Friday, October 26, 2012

False Harvest

Earlier this week, I was speaking to my mother. Her religion demands that she be "of this world, but no part of it," or something to that effect. They are intended to stand apart from others, yet not sequester themselves. I pointed out that this a difficult thing for children, who often want to be a part of the activities that their peers participate in. I do, however have a certain level of respect for this viewpoint.

I was reminded of this the next day, when a mailer appeared in my mailbox advertising a "Harvest Carnival" to be held at a local church tomorrow afternoon. As far as I'm concerned, these "Christian" gatherings are little more than rank hypocrisy. If you're too Christian for my sins (sung to the tune of a certain "Right Said Fred" song) then leave me to burn in Hell for celebrating Halloween. I'm down with that. As the saying goes, it's a free country. But there's something that seems fundamentally dishonest in trying to have one's candy and eat it, too.

I understand children well enough to understand that it's a very tough row to hoe to keep them away from things that everyone around them is doing - especially when it means going to school empty-handed the next day while everyone else is trading candy and other treats back and forth. But this current model of pretending that all it requires to sanctify something is a disingenuous name change seems to send a message that you may do as you like, so long as you can claim that it's not the same thing that the non-Christians (or the improperly Christian) are doing.

To borrow a phrase, it's hypocrisy, sanctified by nomenclature. And the rest of us; we're not fooled.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Secrets Well-Kept

"Come hear the Green Party presidential candidate that the corporate media won't tell you about."

They aren't, it seems, the only ones.

The Stein-Honkala ticket is the fifth of eight on the Washington State ballot this year, and it's likely that many Washington voters had never seen the name before. By the same token, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the first time that you're seeing the name. According to Green Party orthodoxy, it's because The Media, owned and controlled by the Corporations, are deliberately avoiding any mention of Stein's candidacy.

But I first found out about Stein some weeks back, from a website devoted to the elections. And this is the first item that I have seen posted by her supporters. A decent sized garage sale inspires more outreach. And that's part of the issue that political alternatives have in the United States. They have, for the most part, outsourced their public relations efforts to a mass media that's devoted mainly to celebrity and conflict. Because that's what generates readers, listeners and viewers. (Ralph Nader, despite having the same snowball's chance in Hell of being elected President of the United States as any other "third-party" candidate can interject himself into a fair number of news cycles because he already had a decent amount of name recognition before moving into politics, and then a virtuous cycle ensues.) Good media types may state that there is a difference between the interests of the public and the public interest, but catering to the public interest doesn't pay the bills in the way that catering to the interests of the public does.

In the end, the people who support the Green Party are going to have to take some responsibility for the Stein-Honkala ticket's lack of visibility. When you want people to know something, you have to take it upon yourself to tell them, rather than leaving that to others, and then complaining. Or, as the saying goes, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." The followers of Lydon LaRouche, with their "President Obama as Hilter" shtick, manage to keep themselves enough in the public eye that many people can tell you they've seen them, even if they don't know exactly who they are. While I'm not advocating that the Green Party sink to the level of the LaRouchies, surely they can mount a more active and effective public outreach campaign than posting flyers outside of a Seattle bookstore.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


She was there today, just where she was yesterday. When I drove past her, as the rain gently fell, I looked in her direction, and she looked back at me, and our eyes met again. But yesterday, I was walking. Today, I was driving, and my car was not only a shelter for me, but a barrier between us. The light gave me leave, and I pulled away from her. A few moments later, the sky flashed blue and then boomed and rumbled and growled. I could still see the traffic light at the corner where she stood when the hail began to fall like stones.

By the Hour

Bring your company into the 21st century, where work is about goals accomplished, not hours clocked. Your employees will thank you.
Killer Motivating Tactic: Break the Time Clock
That pretty much says it all. Although you could make the point that this was true even in a large part of the 20th century. I was about to start a new temporary position, working for a man who'd been a manager of mine before, and I was making the point to him that his company, like so many others was Doing it Wrong, in that they paid temporary workers for their time rather than their output.

Now, to be sure, there are jobs where it's all about the time spent. When I was a child-care worker, and was supervising children, paying me for my time as exactly the point. If they needed someone to look after the kids from 2 in the afternoon to 10 that night, that's what was needed. There's no way to squeeze any efficiency out of that task - it's not like the world's best CCW can find a way to get that done by 9:15 pm. But that's not the way that many other jobs work - yet we insist on treating them like child care, or, perhaps worse, like old-school assembly-line work.

It's a truism that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. Well, most of the time, there's one simple reason for this: there is no incentive to get things done any earlier. If I am paying you by the hour to accomplish something that I say should take 40 hours, and you find a way to get it done n 36, what is likely to happen? 1) I give you a pat on the back - then I give you more work to do for the remaining four hours. (And next time, I give you less time to do the work.) 2) I give you a pat on the back, and then send you home to avoid paying the last four hours. Which one of these situations is of benefit to you? Where is your incentive to find a faster way to do things?

When I was a manager of a QA team, I read in a book that if you had to schedule a meeting, the best time to do it was either right when people were arriving, or just before they were leaving, rather than in the middle of the morning or the afternoon. The idea was that you didn't want to break up the flow of people's workdays by interrupting them. So I promptly selected 2 to 3pm on Fridays for our weekly team meeting. But this wound up being a smarter move on my part than I first realized. Team meeting was simple - there was a brief time set aside at the beginning for announcements, then we went over what people had done for the week, and then we talked about what needed to be done for the next week. About a month into this routine, I ran into one of my people in the hallway after the meeting. During the meeting, they'd informed me that they had all of their work for the week done.

"What's up?" I asked. "Do you need to start on next week's work before you leave today?"

"No," they replied, after thinking about for a moment. "I should have time to get it all done, if I start on Monday."

"Well, if you're done with your work for this week, then why are you still here?"

It started a trend. Once people realized that their week ended at 3pm on Friday as long as their work for the week was done (and done properly), they started to find creative ways to shave a couple of hours off of the time that it took to do things. (It's amazing how big a motivator giving people two hours back can be.) When it dawned on them that if they were done with their work for the week by Friday at noon (or 11:30 for that matter), they could take a long lunch (as long as they were in the conference room at 2), finding ways to get "40 hours" worth of work done in 35 hours became almost a contest. And because it was all "legal," they had no qualms about sharing their shortcuts with one another. The result was an increasing level of efficiency; the amount of work that could be expected in a five-day period of time gradually rose. Now, I'm not claiming to be a brilliant manager. I lucked into this, and had enough sense to find a way to build on it, aided and abetted by a corporate culture that didn't care when you did something or how long it took, so long as you had it done correctly and on time. (At least at the start.)

As I was noting before, this doesn't work for everything. Sometimes, paying people for their time is exactly what you're intending to do. But many companies have fallen into this mode when it doesn't actually make sense for them to be doing it. Rethinking it would yield benefits.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Okay, Pay Your Own Way

If Rick Perry wants to strip the Texas welfare state bare, why should voters in Maine or Oregon care? If anything, the blue states would probably benefit from such a move. Since red states have more poor people, and since their state governments spend less money on the safety net, they receive a larger share of federal funds...Looked at this way, the red states are the moochers and the blue states are the makers.
Blue-state Germans, red-state Greeks
I first encountered this when I was still living in Illinois, and heard the statistic that Chicagoland made up 60% of the state's tax base, yet received only 15% of state spending. In spite of this, downstaters complained bitterly about their tax burden, and swore up and down that they were the ones being taxed to pay for programs that benefited deadbeat inner-city minorities and crumbling urban infrastructure. My roommates and I nearly started a petition drive for the City and suburbs to secede from the state.

This odd disconnect from reality still plays itself out on a national level. Despite the fact that many rural states seem about as densely populated as Mars, many rural people are convinced that not only do they manage to pay out-of-pocket for thousands of miles of remote roadways but that they are the only reason why the nation's metropoli can sustain themselves. Republican politicians feed into this with a steady stream of anti-tax invective that feeds into a feeling of burden and grievance that, while politically useful, isn't borne out by the facts. Meanwhile, Blue-state America, seemingly fueled by an ironclad noblesse oblige seem to be unwilling to tell the grumblers to get bent, and saddle them with what the reality of "everyone pays only their own" would really look like.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Ad-Hoc Taxonomy of God

Found on the web. An interesting rundown of several, although not likely all, of the various conceptualizations of God found in the United States.

I think the real problem is that everyone has a different definition of God.

Therefore, I propose an ad hoc taxonomy of gods along with my own fanciful naming of each. Let’s start with the most abstract and work our way toward the specific. This isn’t meant as a complete survey, but is centered on the Abrahamic religions. There are many other versions of God, many of which would not fit into this taxonomy, but that is beyond the scope of this initial description.

1. God is just a name to describe the physical laws of the universe. I like to think of this as The Atheist God.
2. God is beyond knowing and completely outside description. I like to think of this as The Agnostic God (based on the literal translation of “unknowable”).
3. God is the creator who set everything into motion and is now sitting back and watching everything unfold. This is a god that no longer interacts with the universe she is The Watcher God. A slight variation on this is that history is unfolding as a predestined plan from the creation point, in which case I refer to him as The Clockmaker God (after Newton’s clockwork universe).
4. God interacts with people (and perhaps animals), but does not directly alter the world in a physical way. This god provides people with divine inspiration, but to actually affect the world she relies on people to act as agents. This is The Inspirational God.
5. God directly interacts with the world physically. This is The Interventionist God. This version of god can come in many different versions, a sample of which I list here.
5a. God acts in nearly imperceptible ways, nudging things to suit his will. I think of this as The Little Miracles God.
5b. God used to do big flashy miracles, but as history progresses he intercedes directly less often and almost never in the modern era. I think of this as The Age of Miracles God.
5c. God controls everything and everything that happens is a result of her will. Bad things happen to bad people as a punishment, and to good people to test their faith. Good things happen to good people as a reward and to bad people as an act of grace and mercy. I like to think of this as The Activist God.
5d. God is omnipotent and he isn’t afraid to use it. He can alter people’s memories, plant fossils in the ground and alter reality without anyone noticing, unless she wants people to see it. I think of this as The Magic God.

This is just a start, but I think it might be useful so that we're all on the same page when we make claims about what is or isn't compatible with science.

It occurs to me that perhaps there is another type.

x. God, while an incredibly powerful force, has mortal enemies, and to a certain extent, relies on other mortal agents to neutralize his Earthly opposition. I think of this as The Armchair General God.

I suppose that this could be considered a subset of 4, The Inspirational God, but I'll leave that to the reader to determine for themselves.

There is also a conceptualization of God that I recall from dealings with some of my relatives growing up. It may be particular to specific communities, because I don't hear as much about it these days.

y. God has a Plan for the Universe, but it is not predestined, as in The Clockmaker God. Instead, people have to actively choose whether or not they are going to follow the plan. (This strikes me as an answer to the retort that: "If God has a plan, my current actions must be a part of it.") I think of this as The Project Manager God.

Of course, I could go on like this for quite some time, and I suppose that's really part of the point. For all of the idea that God is a singular being, people's experience of it are quite different from one another. As was said, "everyone has a different definition of God." This has been true for perhaps as long as the concept of God has been around, and has been the cause of a lot of conflicts. Of course, a unified understanding of God would do away with this, but everyone in invested in their own conceptualization. But where, I wonder, does this leave the idea of God?