Saturday, March 30, 2013

Odd Company

According to today's wandering along the "Next Blog" link, Nobody in Particular has been hanging out with Christians, punk rockers and people who quit blogging between 12 and 48 months ago.

I must admit to a level of curiosity as to how the "next" algorithm works. While I do opine about topics touching on religion here on a fairly frequent basis, I don't pontificate about Biblical topics or the while Christian movement. On the other hand, I hardly talk about music at all, and I don't think I've ever mentioned Punk.
But most strange were the significant percentage of blogs that were no longer active. Some seemed to from people who simply didn't have the time and/or inclination to keep up with them. Some had moved to other providers, and so their final post was something along the lines of: "Follow this link to the new home of this blog." But many just seemed to stop, with a final post that gave no real indication that the author never intended to come back and write more. You'd think for all that technology journalists had latched onto the idea that Google+ was a "ghost town," that Google would be sensitive to having the "Next Blog" link take a surfer to a page that hadn't been updated in months or years.

But their party, their rules, I suppose. But the neighborhood seems less vibrant, when the lights are out in so many of the houses. Of course, tomorrow is another day, and by the time it occurs to me to have a peek into the local weblog scene again, the rabbit hole will lead someplace entirely different.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Opened Doors

"If the law redefines marriage to say that fathers are optional, then it's hard to make the argument that fathers are essential," says Ryan T. Anderson, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
But the state does have an interest in seeing that relationships that result in children are permanent and monogamous, to ensure their care and feeding, he says. Otherwise, the state might have to help with their support.
"Marriage is the way the state non-coercively incentivizes me to be in the institution that does best for children," Anderson says.
Caitlin Seery shares Anderson's concern that weakening the "marriage culture" could lead to more government intervention and expenditure of resources to aid children who would have been better off raised by a mother and a father.
"Most of use grew up thinking marriage is about romantic love and living happily ever after, whereas when we grow up, we realize it's about raising children and providing them with a mother and a father," Seery says.
Still, [Sam Schulman, a journalist who has written a number of articles on the subject over the past decade] says that because marriage is an essential part of the broader kinship system that protects women and children, redefining it so thoroughly could weaken it in ways as yet unforeseen.
Granting marriage rights to gay couples "dilutes the currency that makes a woman married to a man a wife," Schulman says.
Procreation is necessary for the species, and marriage is the best way to ensure thriving families, says John C. Eastman, a Chapman University law professor and chairman of the National Organization for Marriage.
Allowing gays to marry, he says, would be "almost the nail in the coffin" in terms of a trend toward the "delegitimizing of marriage," through no-fault divorce, out-of-wedlock births and other phenomena he says weaken marriage.
Although there were broken homes long before the political and legal debates about gay marriage began, marriage as a socially sanctioned institution is meant to ensure children are raised by a mom and a dad, [Minnesota state Sen. Warren Limmer(R)] says. Gay marriage lacks that "unique" quality that is beneficial to society.
'Severing Love From Diapers': The Other Case Against Gay Marriage
The logic of these arguments seems to be that as long as same-sex couples are barred from marriage, there is still a chance to roll back the clock and re-impose the old marriage as wedlock institution on a society that appears to have been in the process of walking away from it for several years, if not the past several decades. Not only has that horse bolted from the barn, but the barn has burned down, the farmer has packed it in and taken up mobile application programming and the land has been redeveloped into condominiums. Even if you could find the barn doors, closing them now seems quixotic.

"No-fault divorce, out-of-wedlock births and other phenomena [that] weaken marriage" aren't the fault of same-sex couples wanting to be married, and despite having asked any number of people, I have yet to hear a coherent argument for why simply denying the term marriage or state sanction to same-sex relationships will "correct" said phenomena. People, both as individuals and as couples simply aren't as dependent on the small communities of people around them to get by. And that freedom from reliance on an immediate, localized group for sustenance has lead to the inability of the community to indoctrinate people into their mores and values, and from effectively sanctioning people for non-compliance. But just as importantly, couples that are engaged in traditional marriages don't understand these "weakening" trends as realistic threats to their own marriages anymore. And this is, in part, a result of the very factor that the proponents of traditional marriage decry - the idea that marriage serves, first and foremost, the interests of the married adult couple. If one's own marriage isn't held together by the threat of social sanction in the event of a separation, why should someone care if other people are free to separate? Why should someone care if someone else has children outside of a marriage if they themselves have not been forced into being married as the price of having their own children? As the idea of marriage (and perhaps parenthood, as well) as an unwelcome, burdensome requirement has faded, the perceived need to force others into the institution has also faded. To be sure, it hasn't gone completely away. But today, finding someone who will condemn an unmarried adult as somehow immature or irresponsible based on nothing more than their status as a single adult is actually fairly difficult. Freed of the requirement to subject oneself to the institution of marriage, whether they want it or not, in order to be viewed in a positive social light, people are less likely to impose that requirement on others.

Whether same-sex marriage critics such as Anderson, Serry, Schulman, Eastman and Limmer simply don't realize that the underlying social currency has changed or if they actively intend to re-institute broad, or even universal, public opprobrium for the single and/or childless is not for me to say. (And personally, since I understand their task to be even more Sisyphean than Sisyphus' original punishment, I don't really care.) Their attempt to stand in the path of history and shout "Stop!" seems pointless at best, and painfully deluded at worst. Virtue is born of necessity. Marriages have been, for a very long time, less about children, than they were about property rights (children were, at times, included in said property) and political alliances between families. Yes, public marriage ceremonies did establish who the father of any given child was. But in any place and time where people were mobile enough to be able to leave the immediate community of people who knew them it didn't make too much of a difference. A father who had left for the next valley may as well have fled to another planet. The community may have been aggrieved that they had to pitch in his share of support for his children, but that didn't mean that they considered it worthwhile to have him tracked down and brought back in chains. And once the value of women's work and the social safety net increased, women were no longer as dependent on male support. And as the necessity for marriage eroded, so too did the virtue assigned to it.

This is not to say that those days will never return - after all, a comet might hit the Earth, and blast us all back into the Stone Age, at which point it's likely that a LOT of things that we've left behind - like stone tools, animal furs as common clothing or Disco - may make a comeback. But, as was mentioned in a conversation I had yesterday, 1850 isn't with us anymore. And pretending that one can stop tomorrow from coming won't bring it back.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Echoing Points

According to a lengthy report released by the Republican National Committee, the “Grand Old Party” needs to make some changes if it wants to start winning presidential elections again. But, like all things, a change in the status quo is going to be easier said than done. Republican primary voters have been demanding a high level of ideological purity from their candidates, spurred on by popular, activist, media personalities. As what it takes to be a viable “April” Republican drifts further and further to the political right, it becomes more and more difficult for anyone who can win in that arena to be a competitive “November” Republican.

“The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself,” [the report] says. “We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.”
Republican Review of 2012 Losses Calls for Many Changes
However, as with any system that doesn't work, you have the fact that in some ways, it does work - and the people for whom it works are unlikely to embrace changes that have costs for them, while bringing benefits to others. Especially when they to don't feel that they need to.

One of the complaints that Democratic lawmakers and activists have had since the last presidential election is that “elections matter.” But the Republicans have put a lot of time, money and effort into making sure that they didn't, and they aren't about to let go of it. Despite the fact that, nationwide, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives won 1.4 million more votes than their Republican rivals, the fact that after the 2010 elections, the Republicans were the ones often drawing the district boundary maps meant that the G.O.P. was able to maintain their majority of seats.

This most recent process of gerrymandering (the name should be considered a grave insult to the whole of order Caudata) has produced congressional and state legislature seats that are reliably Republican. And the tendency of Democratic voters to live in densely-populated urban areas makes it easy for those drawing the district lines to group them into a few overwhelmingly Blue districts, while retaining the rest of the state to be divided up between themselves.

This process has likely contributed to the creation of a Republican base that feels little need to open up. The seats their lawmakers hold are safe, and those of the Democrats are even more untouchable. Given this, it seems reasonable that the Republicans will continue to converse with themselves in their echo chambers. Because it is the people who are those echo chambers with them whose votes they rely on to stay in office. Unless those people are convinced that the Oval Office can only be gained with changes, and that is worth those changes, they won't pressure their candidates into a different direction.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Crime Culture

To an extent, there is a "Rape culture" in the United States, as it doesn't take much digging to find places, groups and institutions within the broader culture that react to rape with tolerance, indifference or even acceptance.

But in this regard, rape is not unique - there are any number of crimes about which this can be said now, could have been said in the past and will be said in the future. Mainly because we (and I use this in the sense of the generalized we) don't commonly follow the rules around personal valuations that say:

  • A non-criminal who is not useful to you should be counted as having a higher worth than a criminal who is.
  • Victims, and people like the victims, should have a higher worth than the perpetrators and people like the perpetrators.
And isn't this what it really comes down to? Of course, things are rarely that simple. When people have something we want, whether it's money, talent, social currency, a key to our own self-approval, or what have you, we are often willing to make allowances for those people - so long as they are willing to share - that we are unwilling to make people without these things.

Social approval has always been important for almost anyone who isn't completely independent and self-sufficient. While we are interdependent in many aspects of our society, that interdependence is not balanced. The individual tends to need the greater society much more than the greater society needs any one individual. This is especially true for vulnerable populations and has, in fact, often been the cause of said vulnerability. And there are countless historical examples of that imbalance having harmful or even fatal consequences. Laws and strictures are, ultimately constructs created by people, and without people being ready, willing and able to enforce them, they are often worth less than the paper they are - or perhaps are not - printed on.

To the degree that someone feels that their health, welfare or even their life depends on their being counted as worthwhile by the society around them, they may then understand that they are entitled to that valuation, and become very sensitive to anything that hints that it's being lowered. Examples abound; too many to touch upon them in any real detail. The concept of "Rape Culture," as I understand it, is a manifestation of the real and rational fear that women have of being marginalized by a culture that they cannot adequately punish for mistreating them. Especially when it appears that they are being marginalized over things that we are commonly expected to regard as being trivial, like sports, or ephemeral, like social standing.

But, not being a woman myself, I don't have a clear enough picture of the issue. As an African-American, the closest that I come are the lynching stories that I was told as child. But these are, to a degree, ancient history, rather than an everyday reality. Once, I unintentionally gave a female friend the idea that I intended to assault her. I've been in some real knock-down-drag-out altercations with people - but I've never been concerned that it would lead to my murder at the hands of an angry mob. My understanding, that in the face of enough social disapproval, my life may be forfeit, is simply an abstract concept. So I'm not going to claim, by any stretch of the imagination, that I can relate. I'm simply an outsider, looking to put something into a larger context.

I don't know that I've found it, but I think the pieces fit.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

All About Me

"Portman says he changed his mind because he looked at his son and wanted him to have a happy life. But the gay people to whom Portman was denying marriage before his conversion—those people were also someone's sons and daughters. Does Portman only care about suffering when it occurs in his family?"
Rob Portman's Selfish Reversal on Marriage Is a Triumph for Gay Rights
If so, I'd be willing to bet that he's not alone.
I downloaded this from PostSecret some years back. I suspect it's a pretty common "secret" here in the United States.
Normally, I would think that a politician would avoid making so overtly selfish a statement. But maybe he's doing as we expect politicians to do: echoing the sentiments of their constituents. Despite the fact that the United States has long stood for "Liberty and Justice for All," the definition of "All" has rarely been as expansive as most of us presume it to be. In a lot of ways, the most surprising thing about Portman's statement is that he seems unashamed to actually own up to that reality - especially given the amount of time and energy that we commonly put into denying it.

But this is another one of those things that, rather than seeing as being a capital offense in others, that we should simply recognize when it's present in ourselves and move on. There's a reason why "All politics is local," and it's because, for the most part, that all politics is also personal.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Eye For An Eye

Back in 2009, a felon by the name of Maurice Clemmons killed four police officers in Lakewood, Washington. He fled the scene of the shootings with the help of one Dorcus Allen, who had driven to the location. When the police were looking for Allen, LaTanya Clemmons helped him by driving him to a motel and giving him money to buy a bus ticket. Maurice Clemmons was killed in a confrontation with a Seattle police officer, Allen was captured and sentenced to 420 years in prison. LaTanya Clemmons was sentenced to 5 years in prison for rendering criminal assistance to Allen, far longer than the normal 6 to 12 month standard sentencing range. She was scheduled to be released in July of last year, after serving two-and-a-half years, because of a now-expired law, passed in 2003, that gave certain non-violent inmates a 50% “earned release” credit. But she left prison slightly earlier than that date, after her conviction was overturned on appeal in June of 2012.

Prosecutors were required to prove LaTanya Clemmons knew Allen had committed aggravated first-degree murder, or knew that police were seeking him for aggravated first-degree murder.

In a 2-1 decision released Friday, the Division 2 Court of Appeals held that prosecutors had not presented sufficient evidence to support either allegation at her trial in 2010. Given that, the rendering charge also was not adequately supported and should be overturned, the justices said.
Court overturns convictions of Maurice Clemmons' sister
The dissenting justice maintained that Clemmons didn't need to know exactly what had happened to be guilty, given that: “a renderer need not know the degree of the crime for which police seek the assisted person, knowledge of the police search alone is sufficient.”

To prevent such convictions from being overturned in the future, the Washington State legislature has passed a change to the relevant statute that adds “It is not a defense that the person's knowledge of the underlying crime or juvenile offense committed by the person receiving assistance was nonspecific or based upon secondhand information.”

I understand all of the hubbub. It's hard for legislators to go wrong by lowering the boom on lawbreakers, especially when assaults against police officers are involved. But crafting laws just to close down specific successful defenses seems petty and a bad precedent. The point behind the law is not to lock up people we don't like, or who frighten us. It should be to maintain public safety and the like. Setting things up to ensure that vengeance is meted out to everyone we can catch doesn't serve that, and it buttresses a public perception that hurting people who they can make a case hurt them is a right that government should grant. In the grand scheme of things, what LaTanya Clemmons did was both trivial and ineffective, and she had already served nearly two-and-a-half times the normal top sentence for what she'd done when her convictions were overturned.

Granted, legal punishments are not meant to be pleasant or trivial. Then, they loose a lot of their deterrent effect. (Such as it is.) But making the law into a tool to answer suffering with suffering isn't a good answer. The point behind the justice system shouldn't be to get our revenge for us. It should the purposes of the whole society. Chasing individual cases doesn't do that.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


It doesn't take a science-fiction fanatic to foresee a time in the not-too-distant future where "autonomous weapons technology" or "human-out-of-the-loop" systems start to enter combat instead of human soldiers. In fact, given the challenges of artificial intelligence, it's likely that many of us think that such a future will be here sooner than it will actually occur. After all, we thought that we'd have flying cars by now, didn't we?

So people have already started putting thought into the ethical ramifications of robotic weapons. Whether it's a plan for an international ban on further research into "killer robots," or looking into means of creating "ethical robotic systems" that would be programmed to follow international laws of war and rules of engagement, people are looking for ways to avoid the nightmare scenarios of lethal machines that can wage war without the supposed limitations of human scruples and squeamishness.

Good luck with that.

In the end, robotic soldiers are going to be given the same tasks that human soldiers are - win the war (make the other side give up) as quickly as possible and with as little disruption to the lives of "the folks back home" as can be reasonably managed. And they'll have the added benefit of when the enemy turns out to be skilled, tenacious and well-armed, it doesn't result in as many flag-draped coffins.

In the end, the application of ethics to anything is a statement that there are more important things than winning. Even if we never speak of it, the entire point behind the concept of rules of warfare is the idea that it's better to lose a life or a battle or a war than it is to take certain actions in pursuit of victory. But when was the last time you heard of a nation being extolled because they followed the rules to the letter - and suffered a crushing defeat because of it? Where are the praises of a nation that allowed a war to drag on for years, because a more immediate victory would have entailed breaking the rules?

When autonomous weapons become technologically, economically and politically feasible, people are unlikely to worry about whether or not they are ethically feasible. Mainly because they're likely to still be worried about making sure that the people who die for their nation, and the people left bereft by that sacrifice, are somewhere else. War is the price that governments sometimes decide that they're willing to pay for what they understand that they (or their populations) want or need. And like anyone who is paying an unpleasant price for something, they'd rather that the final bill was as low as possible. Only if ethical warfare lowers that bill, will it become an integral part of future military technology.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


First Avenue and Pike Street. Seattle, Washington.


I think that I've come to dislike the hash tag "#FirstWorldProblems." It seems to have spread beyond poking fun at our tendency to over-dramatize life's little annoyances and become little more than a convenient excuse for deciding that other people are being whiners. And even though I'm completely at peace with labeling people as "whiners," it is one of those things that I think that we should own, rather than using the world's less fortunate as a sort of human shield against charges of indifference. In other words, if I'm going to be unsympathetic to someone else's distress because I find their problem to be trivial in the grand scheme of things, then I should be openly unsympathetic, rather than claiming to reserve that sympathy for someone who, five minutes prior, I didn't give a rip about. (And likely still don't.) And to a degree, this has become symptomatic of many attempts to "put things in perspective" in general. We wind up saying, whether we quite intended to or not, "Shut up, because somewhere in Africa, there's a starving refugee who would love to have that 'problem'."

Everything, it must be remembered, has a price. And part of the price of living in an advanced, technologically-driven society is that we tend to leave everything to that technology. And there's a certain amount of sense in doing things that way. While one looks like an idiot when blindly following a GPS unit's instructions leads to driving into a lagoon, trusting the GPS to get you from point A to point B is faster and more efficient, in a lot of cases, than trying to memorize a series of directions or work with a map while behind the wheel. The issue arises when we allow ourselves to let our problem-solving skills lapse, because we're completely unused to needing them, and then we're humiliated when confronted with that fact.

In much of the First (and Second, for that matter) worlds, people are highly educated, having gone through years, if not a couple of decades, of formalized instruction in a wide range of topics. In the United States, a lot of that seems to go to waste, as we don't often use it once final exams are out of the way. Perhaps it's time to change that. Rather than confronting people over the idea that they should be accepting of certain things that come their way, in exchange for not being desperately poor, we should work with people to put their accumulated skills and knowledge to work in creating solutions.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Candid Camera

You know you're a camera geek when you go to read an article about the DOJ standing up for photographers who photograph or video the police, and when you notice the picture that goes with the article is of a full-frame DSLR with a "protective" UV filter mounted on it, your first thought is: "Amateur. Just use the lens hood."

Photo-geekery aside, I'm impressed that this story hasn't gotten more play than it has. It's become an irregular refrain from certain law-enforcement officials that members of the public who have nothing to hide should have no reason to be concerned about police surveillance. (And by extension, those people who feel they have reason to be concerned...) Given that, there should be a greater push by law-enforcement for transparency. Not to avoid hypocrisy, but simply the slippery slope of only giving a rip about one's own interests.

Not being an idiot, I understand that when the police become twitchy about being photographed, it's not because we're on the way to officers water-boarding people or having "black jails" which become roach motels for critics of the police. (At least, not anytime in the foreseeable future. That kind of police state lies at the end of a fairly long road, and I have a hard time taking seriously people who say that we're barreling down it at top speed.) Instead, it's because they understand that they rely on a certain level of public trust in order to do their jobs effectively, and as such, they've come to the understanding that they're entitled to that trust to a certain degree. And so it follows that they're sensitive to anything that might lead to an erosion of that trust. And while a picture may be worth a thousand words, and a video clip a million, the words that come to mind may not always be an accurate reflection of what was happening at the moment the shutter was pressed, and they almost always miss what transpired half an hour (or half a minute) to either side.

Still, the antidote to bad information is not ignorance, it's more information. I understand that I don't know anything that I wasn't a witness to, and if someone tells me what happened, what I then know is what their personal perspective on it was. The blind man who describes the elephant as being rather much like a tree isn't lying, or even truly mistaken - he's simply incompletely informed and not fully aware of that fact. "Citizen journalism" (aside: Aren't ALL journalists citizens?) is nothing more than adding more blind men to the panel. The more perspectives that are available, the more accurate a picture can emerge, even if some, or even all, of them are deliberately skewed.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Just Another Random American

This article in the New York Times by Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds me of the few trips that I've taken abroad, and why I, the closer it comes to the date of my return home, why I would become more and more attached to my destination.

When I'm in the United States, I'm a Scary Black Man®. People stop me on the street and ask me if I'd like to take part in a job training program, and don't like to take "no" (because it's been a long day at work) for an answer. People cross the street, clutching their keys as impromptu weapons, when I walk towards them on my way to the grocery store. I never have run-ins with the police - almost all of the police officers that I've ever met have been really nice people. It's the everyday people, even here in the Seattle area, who shout "Nigger!" at me as they drive past in their cars. An acquaintance of mine once said that out here (as opposed to more urbanized places, like Chicago) people behaved in this way because they weren't afraid that I would start shooting at them.

"So." I replied. "You're saying that White people are only civil when they think their lives depend on it?"

Which was unfair. After all, I'm old enough to know the difference between a racist and a jackass, and where the two can shade into each other. And there are far too many White people for none of them to be jackasses.

It's tiring and demotivating to constantly feel that all the people around you want to know about you, they gleaned from your skin tone. And they are quick to remind you that they are good and decent people. This is true. But, like Coates, I'm tired of good people. Good Americans.

When I was in Japan, I was someone different. When I went out in the morning, during rush hour, I was treated as just another random gaikokujin, on their way to work. Noone batted an eyelash. When I played my actual role, that of tourist, I was often a novelty, starring in countless snapshots of smiling Nihonjin with their fingers held up in "V" signs.

When I went to England, I was just another face in the crowd, able to wander around a mingle with people going about their days without anyone paying me a moment's thought, until I opened my mouth, which would be greeted by a surprised "Oh! You're an American."

I haven't left the United States because, well, I like it here. I speak the language (well enough, anyway) and I know what side of the street to drive on (and which way to look when crossing the street), and I can figure out how to get from one place to the next without needing technological assistance. And besides, the people here aren't that bad.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I've had all of them that I want to take.

Monday, March 4, 2013

I Can't Get No

Late last week, a sinkhole opened up beneath Jeffrey Bush's bedroom in Seffner, Florida. Bush fell into it. He is presumed dead and his body was never recovered. Authorities are now demolishing the house.

There's nothing remarkable about sinkholes, homes, or people being in their bedrooms. It's fairly easy to take the facts of the story and construct a simple narrative of what happened and can look at the history and geology of the area and understand why it happened. But, as this story on NPR points out, this doesn't answer why Jeffrey Bush specifically was "swallowed" by a sinkhole. And, as the story goes on to relate, for many people, that lack of a deeper explanation of the Earth's seemingly human-like behavior (after all, inanimate objects do not "swallow" in the same way that you or I might) leaves and unsatisfying gap in the narrative.

"Can we ever provide a satisfying explanation for human tragedy?" asks the author.

But the question that I find myself more interested in is why are the facts of the case considered so "deeply unsatisfying" as an explanation of what happened. I have to admit that I don't "get" it. For me, the world is "random" like that - it behaves in ways that we can't predict in real time. And I'm totally okay with that - sometimes, you're the windshield and sometimes, you're the bug. The explanations of what happened are, as the article points out, perfectly reasonable, and so I marvel at the small powers of the natural world, then shrug my shoulders and move on.

So, from where does a need for a deeper, more "satisfying" narrative come from? Is it a social thing, learned from people around us? Is there an evolutionary advantage in this wanting something more? Does it ebb and flow or is it a constant?

Saturday, March 2, 2013