Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Year's End

And so ends 2014. As is customary at this time of the year, there have been a lot of retrospectives on the past twelve months - many of them with a touch of obligation to them, as if we'd rather not look back at all, but since the new year is coming up and everyone expects it...

History, of course, operates on timeframes both longer and shorter than a single calendar year, and this, perhaps, contributes to a feeling that looking back on everything at the end-of-year is arbitrary and perfunctory. It's become a cliché to say that, compared to today, that the world will be both exactly the same and profoundly different tomorrow, but no matter how many times people say it, we never seem to take the lesson of it to heart - any time is a good time to understand what has gone before.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Question Unasked

When NPR's Arun Rath interviewed former Seventh-Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell on his decision to "live for one year without God," it made for moderately interesting radio. But at the end of the interview, Rath comments that it looks like Bell wasn't going to be going back to his former faith now that the year was drawing to a close.

Why not simply ask Bell the question? "Now that your year is up, do you think that you'll be going back?" That doesn't seem like a particularly fraught question, and so it was conspicuous in its absence, even though the answer seemed as obvious to me as it did to Rath. But given that Bell's original intent had been to leave his faith for a year, rather than forever, specifically taking up the change appeared to be in order.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Everyone Else’s Fault

“Unfortunately, I don’t believe anyone connected to law enforcement is surprised this happened,” said Gary McLhinney, a former Baltimore police union president and former chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority police, who is now a labor negotiator for police unions. “Political rhetoric and lies have consequences. When our leaders make statements that encourage lawlessness and demean an entire profession, this is the result.”

And former New York governor George Pataki, responding to the shootings via Twitter, said that he was “sickened by these barbaric acts, which sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric” of Holder and de Blasio.
Two New York City police officers are shot and killed in a brazen ambush in Brooklyn
Really? It's somehow beyond reason that the gunman, identified by police as one Ismaaiyl Brinsley, could have been upset about what happened to Michael Brown and Eric Garner - especially given that he'd already shown diminished respect for the law in the shooting of his girlfriend earlier?

This strikes me as an extension, to its illogical extreme, of our "confessional culture" in which nothing is real unless certain people admit to it. The idea that an African-American New Yorker would have, despite the clear public anger over tragic interactions between police officers and citizens, been unwilling to resort to violence so long as Attorney-General Holder and Mayor de Blasio had simply toed the police line that it was all Brown's and Garner's faults that things went South on them is somewhere between openly disingenuous and utterly moronic. Especially considering the weeks of sometimes-violent street protests that followed the Brown shooting, and, as I've already mentioned, the violent acts that had already been attributed to Brinsley.

Whenever something like this happens - think the Rodney King beating - and the African-American community erupts into violence, there is always a stream of criticism that runs something along the lines of: "Why are people trashing their own communities because of the actions of people outside of that community?" But now that the violence has been aimed directly at the institution that many people hold to be responsible for the events that have triggered so many protests, police apologists are quick to lay the blame at the feet of others, as if, despite all of the nights of unrest, anger and property damage, actually taking out one's ire on the perceived source of the problem is simply beyond every last member of a community that comprises millions of people nationwide.

McLhinney and Pataki are retreating back into the very thing that has so many people upset in the first place - that no matter what happens, it's never an issue with the police, and anyone who implies that they can make mistakes (or be subject to the same prejudices that anyone else can) or that people respond to their actions is an enemy of public safety and law enforcement. This makes the public out to be mindless drones who can only act when prodded by their betters in government. Something that hasn't been true for the entire history of the nation, and it unlikely to have taken root anytime in the recent past.
“Some of the [social-media] postings, which I understand are out there, would seem to indicate that he [Brinsley] had a very strong bias against police officers,” [New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton] said.
For supporters of the police to blame that bias on public officials who they feel are not properly supportive of them comes across as little more than an attempt to shift causality in the service of mandating adherence to a party line. And in so doing, perpetrate a disservice on everyone involved.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Outrage Mirror

Before the threats against theaters catapulted the Sony hack into the national spotlight, there was a certain amount of predictable outrage at former Vice-President Dick Cheney's response to the "Torture Report" released by Democrats in the Senate.

The problem I have is with all the folks we did release who ended up on the battlefield … I have no problem [with torturing innocent people] as long as we achieved our objective.
Dick Cheney, as quoted by Andrew Sullivan
It's easy to read Cheney's words and become angry. And therefore, a number of people have. But, for myself, I don't see Cheney as saying anything different than what any number of Americans believe: Americans are important, and other people, especially those who have hurt us or that we are afraid may hurt us, are unimportant. This philosophy seemed to drive quite a bit of Bush administration policy and rhetoric. When then-President Bush (in)famously stated that other nations "were either with us or against us," he was basically saying that they mattered only in as far as they had taken sides in our dispute with radical Islamic terrorism.

The Bush administration was very big on the philosophy of "American exceptionalism," and a number of Republican lawmakers are still very big boosters of it to this day. And in this, they're in line with a number of American citizens. And a large part of that exceptionalism was the idea that we're simply not subject to the same rules that other people need to be. In the role of being the World's Policeman, we often act as everyday police officers are allowed to - being above certain laws that everyone else has to follow.

Dick Cheney holds up a mirror that we demand to see as flawed. But perhaps it isn't. We should be prepared to see that, and, if it turns out to be true, change it.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Does Not Compute

Sony Pictures has canceled the release of a comedy on the fictional assassination of North Korea's leader, in what appears to be an unprecedented victory for Pyongyang and its abilities to wage cyber-warfare.
Sony cancels North Korea movie in apparent win for Pyongyang hackers
Maybe it's just me, but I don't understand how veiled references to the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York speak to the ability of North Korea to wage cyber-warfare. While it's true that the Guardians of Peace were likely taken more seriously than they otherwise would have been because of their successful breach of Sony's computer security, they didn't need to have hacked into anything to make such a threat - or, despite the serious difficulties in doing so, carry it out. After all, al-Queda didn't need to breach any corporate computer systems to carry out the attack that the Guardians of Peace referenced in their threat.
Today, Guardians of Peace threatened theaters that planned to screen The Interview, saying: “The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001.”
Theater Cancels New York Premiere of 'The Interview'

[...]Sony Pictures pulled its planned release of “The Interview,” a satire targeting that country’s dictator, after the hackers made some ridiculous threats about terrorist violence.
Sony Made It Easy, but Any of Us Could Get Hacked
The former Sony employees who filed suit against their one-time employer allege that Sony effectively blew off the threat of hacking against their systems, even though other attacks have occurred in the past. If that's the case, it hardly seems "unprecedented" for someone to pry open a door that was proven to be ineffectively locked in the first place.

In the end, making the North Koreans out to be the world's most accomplished cyber-warriors draws more eyeballs, and seems much more serious, than a simple story about how large theater chains, and then Sony itself, folded in the face of dubious threats form an organization that only its members had heard of before last month. Taken at face value, this is little more than a story of corporate caution - regardless of how far-fetched the threats may have seemed, or how many people call the companies out for cowardice, had the show opened, and so much as a single person were injured or killed, there would have been a predictable rush of lawsuits from people claiming that they had been placed in unnecessary danger by companies hungry for profits.

That's not the same as the penetration of Sony security making it difficult or impossible to release the movie. It's a distinction worth making.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

To Remember

A roadside remembrance of the deceased.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

It's All Good

In the car on my way home this evening, I was listening to a radio journalist interviewing a transportation activist about Washington Governor Jay Inslee's plan to mandate lower-carbon fuels for the state, in an effort to lower it's carbon footprint. (Washington, receiving a good portion of its electricity from hydropower, is as something of a disadvantage, given less low-hanging fruit to pick.)

The interviewer asked a simple question: basically, what are the pros and the cons of using lower-carbon fuels for transportation. The activist gladly rattled off the upsides he saw, but started his short statement of the downsides with "the oil industry says," before basically simply listing some scare tactics.

I was unimpressed. One thing that I know is there are the few unmitigated benefits simply lying around free for the asking. On some level or another, a wholesale switch of an entire, fairly populous state to lower-carbon fuels likely won't be painless. Petroleum and coal aren't popular sources of energy simply because of the perfidy of fossil-fuel suppliers. They're popular because they're really energy-dense and fairly safe to transport. That makes them worthwhile despite the fairly obvious downsides to using them as much as we do. If something manifestly better were simply available to anyone who wanted it - people would be using it already.

My personal experience is that anyone who won't be upfront with you about the costs and benefits of the approach that they're promoting doesn't trust that you will make the choice that they want you to make. And that leads me to be distrustful in turn, especially when I realize that they're not being forthcoming. Perhaps a little confidence, especially in the solutions that one is promoting, would go a long way. And if that confidence is unwarranted, perhaps it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


In boardrooms, banks and governments the belief has taken root that the advance of capitalism is irreversible.
John Gray, "A Point Of View: Why capitalism hasn't triumphed"
In this case, it seems to me that boardrooms, banks and governments all misunderstand the fact that what we generally call capitalism, isn't and how societies work. Herbert Spencer understood capitalism to be the mark of "industrial societies[, where] the economy was based on contract and voluntary exchange." But that's actually a fairly rare circumstance. While the current economy of the United States isn't centrally planned, it's not laissez-faire by any stretch of the imagination.

And although I must admit to not being a particularly adept historian, it seems to me that Gray is right when he says that the formation of economies is driven by human decisions. And those decisions are often reactive, looking to correct perceived problems in what came before. Capitalism isn't free of perverse incentives, and those perverse incentives can, and have, created any number of problems that many people are keen to fix - especially when cronyism enters the picture, as it often does. Given that, it's fairly easy to imagine a situation in which societies move away from what we now understand to be capitalism, in an effort to solve those issues.

Spencer, coiner of the notorious "Survival of the fittest," tended to believe that a Darwinian evolutionary model could be applied to anything, including societies (hence, "social Darwinism"). But he tended to see evolution as a process that drove things in predictable directions, towards things that he considered superior. Boardrooms, banks and governments may follow him in that, but it is likely to end in the same disillusionment.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Best. Study. Ever.

From the moment I saw the title, I knew this one would be good:

The Darwin Awards: sex differences in idiotic behaviour
Although, one has to admit, conventional wisdom is right on the mark here.
Sex differences in risk seeking behaviour, emergency hospital admissions, and mortality are well documented. However, little is known about sex differences in idiotic risk taking behaviour. This paper reviews the data on winners of the Darwin Award over a 20 year period (1995-2014). Winners of the Darwin Award must eliminate themselves from the gene pool in such an idiotic manner that their action ensures one less idiot will survive. This paper reports a marked sex difference in Darwin Award winners: males are significantly more likely to receive the award than females (P less than 0.0001). We discuss some of the reasons for this difference.
You just have to love science sometimes.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

You Were Saying?

Forgive us, when we have failed to lift our voices for those who couldn't speak or breathe for themselves.
Barry Black, Chaplain of the United States Senate
Black Congressional Staffers Stage Walk Out Over Grand Jury Decisions
I don't think that our problem is a failure to speak out in the face of injustice. Especially in the age of the Internet, finding people who will go on and on at length about this or that injustice is child's play. If we need to be forgiven for anything, it is our willingness to ignore those who speak out and/or stand by as they are punished by those who don't want their message catching on. A voice raised but that remains unlistened to is of no more use than any other noise.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Tahoma By Rail

Taken from the Amtrak Cascades to Portland.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Moving Violation?

Consider the following exchange:

“You were walking by … you were making people nervous.”
“By walking by?”
“Yes, they said you had your hands in your pockets.”
“Wow, walking by having your hands in your pockets makes people nervous to call the police when it’s snowing outside?”

Even reading it, you can hear the incredulity.

And this is one the issues that plays into difficulties between African-Americans and police officers. Here in Seattle, it seems to be difficult to get the police to respond to a theft when you can pretty much hand them the perpetrator on a silver platter. Yet, apparently, Pontiac, Michigan has so little for the police to do that the mere report of an African-American man walking down the street with his hands in his pockets is enough for an in-person visit from an officer.

To be sure, without the actual call to the police, it's impossible to know why Brandon McKean was stopped. The actual caller may have said that something much more serious was afoot. It happens, and the officer may not have wanted to share what was actually reported. But with only the facts that we have, it's easy to understand that McKean may have felt that the officer was simply harassing him. After all, there are likely no jurisdictions where "walking with one's hands in one's pockets on a cold day while Black" is actually a crime.

White fears of African-Americans, especially men, as being violent and having little regard for the law are well known. Especially among conservatives, who are much more likely to be open about such feelings. But even given that, had you said to me that there are White people so afraid of us that walking down the street would itself be enough to prompt them to call the police, I wouldn't have believed you. (In fact, I'm not sure I believe that now.) Given that the job of the police is to find and arrest people who have broken the law, and they are not obligated to be truthful in their statements, I doubt that I would have taken the officer's statements at face value.

Which is where I think things often begin to go off the rails. Dealing with someone who has quite a bit of authority, not to mention lethal weapons, can be stressful enough as it is. Not knowing what they want - or what they think they know, doesn't make things any better.

Friday, December 5, 2014

You Only Die Twice

Buried in all of the acrimony and vitriol surrounding the Michael Brown case was a simple comment that went something along the lines that the Grand Jury, in failing to indict Officer Darren Wilson had shown that Brown was a thug and a violent criminal.

"Wait a minute," I said to myself, "I didn't think that Brown had been on trial here."

But, in a way, the Grand Jury proceedings were about Michael Brown, at least in the eyes of the public. Whether it's about asserting the Black lives matter on the one hand, or that the world is now a better place on the other, these cases become a form of public referendum on the likability of the dead person. Good and worthy people, goes the logic, should trigger accountability if they are wrongly slain.

All of this gave me a new insight into victim-blaming - that it's a form of character assassination carried out in the service of the belief that the world is a safe and predictable place - a place were bad things don't "just happen."

Whether it's the death of a person at the hands of the authorities or the sexual assault of a woman at the hands of a respected member of the community, if bad things only happen to bad people, it stands to reason that people will look for ways to define people that bad things happen to as, well, bad. Which makes sense. If we understand that there are people out there who believe in a Just World, why wouldn't we expect them to defend that belief? Especially if the primary cost of that defense is simply tarring the reputation of a stranger?

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Two roads to the same destination still represent different journeys.
Either way, Seth Godin is right. It's a shame.

Picking Sides

Many freshly arrived reporters in Israel, similarly adrift in a new country, undergo a rapid socialization in the circles I mentioned. This provides them not only with sources and friendships but with a ready-made framework for their reporting—the tools to distill and warp complex events into a simple narrative in which there is a bad guy who doesn’t want peace and a good guy who does.
Matti Friedman “How the Media Makes the 'Israel Story'
So, tell me, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which side do you think is which? One of the impressions that I get from the whole affair is that each side is do convinced of the self-evidential nature of their status as the good guy who wants peace that anyone who thinks otherwise must have been brainwashed by a biased media that is too busy sucking up to someone to "do their jobs."

In the end, as far as I see it, the problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't that either of side would rather go on fighting this conflict forever. It's that both sides would rather go on fighting the conflict than living with a peace that looks like losing the conflict, because they understand themselves to be fight for what is right on a fundamental level.

When I talk to people here in the United States who have adopted a strongly partisan stance on either side of the issue, they often appear to have difficulty understanding that there is any reasonable way for someone to disagree with their view of the subject. And they can point to media articles that back them up, while at the same time decrying an overall media environment that they feel is deliberately hostile to their point of view. I suspect that a lot of this comes from the fact that both sides of the issue are fairly media-savvy, and adept at packaging the simple narratives that Friedman speaks of - that they're the good guys who want peace and are fighting a war for their very survival against the bad guys on the other side who don't.

I am not an analyst of such things, so I wouldn't know if the overall coverage of the conflict is what one would considered balanced in any workable sense. And I don't know how one would calculate such things in any event. But it does seem to me that each side has made enough credible accusations of bias that to say that "the media" has clearly chosen one over the other is dubious.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Phony Calls

In mid-September I was listening to the radio, and a story came on about how people were being stalked by abusive partners who had installed tracking software on their smartphones. The piece listed four makers of such software: mSpy, PhoneSheriff, MobiStealth and StealthGenie.

At the end of September I came across a different story - that Hammad Akbar, a Danish citizen of Pakistani descent and owner of InvoCode, the company that marketed StealthGenie, had been charged with conspiracy over the sale and advertising of the product and service. I remembered the original story, and so kept an eye out for news that more indictments were handed down.

But that news never came. StealthGenie's website vanished, but the others remained accessible. And I started to become suspicious that there was something more to the story than I was aware of. If, as Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell had stated, "Selling spyware is not just reprehensible, it's a crime," then it stood to reason that the companies based in the United States and United Kingdom would also have run afoul of the same laws. Maybe, I speculated, there was something else at work. After all, StealthGenie's owner was a Pakistani - perhaps there was another angle to the story, such as ties to Islamist groups, that wasn't made as public as the spyware allegations.

Well, there was another angle, just not that one. According to Ars Technica:

While parents may use surveillance software to monitor their minor children's mobile phones, InvoCode also marketed the spyware to "potential purchasers who did not have any ownership interest in the mobile phone to be monitored, including those suspecting a spouse or romantic partner of infidelity."
And that appears to be Akbar's mistake. It's perfectly legal to snoop on your children and your employees (although you need consent for employees), but not on a partner whom you suspect may be spying on you. And StealthGenie, it turns out, was expected to take in most of its revenue from the "spousal cheat" market, Sophos reported yesterday.
According to our market research[,] the majority chunk of the sales will come from people suspecting their partners to be cheating on them or just wanting to keep an eye on then [sic].
And this, it turns out is why StealthGenie is no more, and Akbar had to cough up $500,000 in fines.

As for the other applications, mSpy, PhoneSheriff and MobiStealth? One presumes that even though they could just as easily sell their services to "Husband/​Wife or boyfriend/​girlfriend suspecting their other half of cheating or any other suspicious behaviour or if they just want to monitor them," they know better than to come out and actually say that. In fact, they make you promise that you won't do that. (Because we all know what promises are worth.)

So, in the end, Assistant Attorney General Caldwell was incorrect. Selling spyware may be reprehensible, but it's not a crime, so long as you don't market it as a way of spying on another adult just because you suspect them of doing you wrong. So the other companies are free to keep doing what they're doing. Heck, mSpy will even sell you a phone with their monitoring software pre-loaded on it. It makes the perfect gift for that special someone who just might have another special someone...

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Wrong on the Internet

So... the latest bit of "point-and-laugh" to make the rounds of the internet is a 30-minute video of a woman named Megan Fox (although not that Megan Fox) "auditing" the Field Museum of Natural History for "liberal bias."

One of the things that she says, and something that I've heard before from other creationists, is: "Darwin once said 'If the single cell is more complex than I think it is, then all of my theories -- I'm gonna have to start all over again'." This is a badly mangled reference to a line from Chapter Six of "The Origin of Species," in the section named: "Modes of Transition." The section opens with: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." (Note that Darwin continues with: "But I can find out no such case.") Many creationists claim that advances in our understanding of cellular biology over the past 150 years have demonstrated that cell organelles are "irreducibly complex," that is they are complex systems made up of subsystems in such a way that the absence of any given subsystem renders the whole inoperable.

A common example of "irreducible complexity" is the mousetrap. A typical mousetrap has a number of individual subsystems that work together to catch mice. Remove one, such as the holding bar, and the trap fails to catch any mice.

Now, note what this implies: an irreducibly complex system cannot come about in a gradual manner. One cannot begin with a wooden platform and catch a few mice, then add a spring, catching a few more mice than before, etc. No, all the components must be in place before it functions at all. A step-by-step approach to constructing such a system will result in a useless system until all the components have been added. The system requires all the components to be added at the same time, in the right configuration, before it works at all.
Irreducible Complexity: The Challenge to the Darwinian Evolutionary Explanations of many Biochemical Structures
Okay, fine. There's only one problem. That's not how Evolution by Natural Selection works. Organisms don't come together by the random agglomeration of fully-formed parts in the way machines do. And perhaps more importantly, even machines don't really operate in this way. It's likely possible to find an old-school version of a mousetrap that we would recognize as a cruder version of the ones we have today. Then you could trace the refinement of the system through the alterations that were made to the individual systems.

The rest of video continues on in this vein. Fox, as she moves through museum, makes a number of snide comments. She becomes especially animated when she finds "inconsistencies" the museum exhibits or items that strike her as too precise for the evidence at hand. (Interestingly, while she constantly argues that without video evidence of the distant past, scientists simply cannot know certain things, she herself exhibits certainty that, for instance "horsetails have always been horsetails.") And as you listen to her comments (some of which are screamingly incorrect), it becomes clear that not only does she not believe in natural selection, but she doesn't really understand how the process would work, were you to observe it in action. And for this, she has become something of a laughingstock in atheist and skeptic circles.


Okay, so Megan Fox is woefully uninformed about the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, and regards other people who believe it as dupes. What difference does it make? Who cares that Fox believes in an intelligent designer, and thinks that if children want to believe that dragons were real that scientists shouldn't dash their hopes? If Fox believes in cave paintings of dinosaurs, why is that of any importance to the rest of us?

Part of it, I think, goes back to the idea that the less-sophisticated must be protected from believing Wrong Things. Because despite the fact that there have been thousands of years of human technological advancement alongside superstition and accepting things that we now know to be untrue, all that will suddenly grind to a halt if not enough people believe the Right Things. Or will it? Innovation and technology don't depend on having an understanding of things outside of one's chosen field. Putting a man on the moon is rocket science to be sure, but it isn't paleontology. If you think that the skull of a pachycephalosaur is actually a dragon skull and that this proves that humans actually saw living dinosaurs as late as the middle ages, that alone isn't going to make you bad at your job, or prevent you from making new breakthroughs in it.

It's easy to believe, I think, that the Flavor-Aid that people we disagree with are serving has been poisoned and that the people who are drinking must be saved from themselves before they are irreparably harmed. But the fact that something may be false doesn't also make it harmful. For many self-described Christians, a lack of believe in the dogmas that they hold to be true marks one as amoral at best, and dangerous at worst. And it might sting to be held as an inferior intellect for holding a different understanding of the world. But there's little point in returning the favor.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How to Have a Shooting

It's a simple recipe.

One) The Supreme Court has ruled that deadly force is justified if an officer is attempting to stop a crime, protect themselves or halt a crime in progress.

Two) It is considered appropriate among some white parents to teach their children that blacks are inherently less intelligent and more prone to violence than whites, and a prominent conservative pundit has gone on the record equating being "strong" and "scary" to being armed.

Three) Most police officers, including many of those who patrol predominantly black neighborhoods, are white.

I don't find it all that difficult to put these three things together and understand why we have a number of shootings. Actually, given these three factors, it seems that the number of shootings of black people by white officers could be a lot higher than it actually is.

And let's add in another pair of factors.

Four) Despite the fact that police officers are trained to deescalate potential violent confrontations, we typically do not hold them accountable for using that training. Therefore, if an officer places themselves into a position that necessitated deadly force to extricate themselves, this doesn't enter into the calculation of culpability.

Five) If the standard is the officer's subjective feeling of being afraid of someone, indictments are going to be rare. After all, you have to prove that the officer is lying. Unless you have some pretty damning evidence, that's a tough row to hoe.

And so it's not surprising that few indictments are handed down when police seriously injure or kill someone who turns out to have been unarmed.

All of these factors were in place well before Ferguson happened. While there is a lot of outrage over the incident and its aftermath, some justified, some self-righteous, the fact remains that this, too, shall pass, and if we don't deal with the factors the lead up to it, the situation is never going to improve.

So... what do we need to do?

Firstly, black communities need to have police officers who come from those communities. Part of this going to be lessening the hostility that some black Americans feel towards blacks who go into law enforcement. Officers who are familiar with the community they work in, and know the people in it, are more likely to know who's a threat and who isn't.

Secondly, the fear-mongering needs to stop. Maybe removing fear as a justification needs to happen, or maybe people need to understand the underlying causes of the statistics they quote. The myth of black pathology has taken root deeply in the United States, and it's going to have to be dealt with. If someone has grown up hearing about how frightening and dangerous a group of peole are, and fear is a justification for deadly force, it hardly seems surprising that there would me more instances of deadly force than a clear-eyed look at the situation may decide are warranted.

Thirdly, when we look into these issues, we can't just start with the moment immediately before the shooting. In the shooting of Kajieme Powell, for instance, when the police officers drove up, even though they exited their vehicle with weapons drawn, they didn't leave themselves room to recover if things got out of hand. Things escalated quickly, and Powell was shot to death by the officers when he advanced on them at close range.

These steps aren't like to likely to prevent, or even delay, the next police shooting or beating. But they will likely delay future ones, and move us to a point where we don't have such a sharp racial divide when it comes to the relationships between police departments and the communities they work in.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Opportunities and Costs

I was reading a piece on the economic collapse in Greece, and one of the people they interviewed made a really good point:

There are always opportunities in a crisis, and those opportunities always come at a cost to someone.

I think that the same is true in the United States, and it explains some of the desire of people to return to an earlier time - and the opposition to that idea.

If you're a white, older, male Protestant, it's easy to feel (likely because it's at least partially true) that the opportunities that non-whites or younger people or women or non-Protestants have gained since the 1950s have come at your direct expense. And even though these groups had problems back in the 50s, the male WASP society was most insulated from them, and to a certain degree benefited from them, as those problems were part of the cost of the visible prosperity that middle-class America enjoyed at the time. And then, as now, it was easy to look around you, see how things were, and decide that this how it was for everyone - out of sight, out of mind.

But now it's sixty years later. Most people who remember that time firsthand were children, and it's easy to look back with nostalgia at a time when everything was simple, opportunities were limitless and the big questions in life weren't your problem yet. Because now, things are complicated, opportunities must be fought for and it's become really important that we find the "right" answers to the big questions in life. Life, as always, didn't live up to the promise. And people see a return to a misremembered past as another bite at the apple - or maybe their rightful first bite; the one that was taken from them by people who don't respect that the promises that were made to them need to be fulfilled. And so, out of nostalgia, they want to return to tradition and seek "time-tested values."

And in that vein, I guess you could call racial segregation a "time-tested value." I guess that you could call the enactment of civil rights legislation a bad act on the part of "an over-bearing government." And that's really the point behind calling it "nostalgia." There's this idea that "only the good parts" of the past can be brought back and overlaid over the present to create a time where everyone is happy "again." Or you can simply label everyone who understood that the silver lining of the good old days had a dark cloud to go with it as brainwashed.

The time tested values that many people speak of worked really well for a good chunk of the populace - but the rest of the populace paid for it. As people stopped buying into the idea that others should pay for their prosperity, the culture transformed. In some ways, that was bad. Nothing is perfect, not even progress. But change and totalitarianism are not synonymous. I understand that for many older Americans, there is an honest belief that the apartheid regime that existed in the 1950s is one that the non-white segment of the population should embrace, and they're free to make that case. But I don't think that it has much chance of success, because viewing the advantages that non-whites, women, non-Christians and young people have earned through the lens of the Red Scare in order to hold them up as somehow "un-American" isn't fighting for "Freedom." It's fighting to be free to oppress.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

All Ways At Once

b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof

Middle English feith, from Anglo-French feid, fei, from Latin fides; akin to Latin fidere to trust

"Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1

I haven't been big on faith for some time now. There are a number of things that I believe, or that I understand to be true, but few things that I really put any measure of faith in. And, for most of my life the supernatural has not been one of those things. In fact, it's arguable if I ever had faith in the religious sense. As a child this was never really an issue - religious education for children, it's been noted, is more or less a process of indoctrination. Since no-one really expects children to understand any of this stuff, being able to go through the motions and recite things at the right time is often all they're looking for. But by the time I was a teenager, especially given that I attended a parochial school, there was a certain level of sensitivity to heresy around, and I, unsurprisingly, ran afoul of it. Not that I had to deal with the Inquisition after homeroom or anything, but my classmates were more keen on enforcing orthodoxy than one might expect of high-school students.

I can't put my finger on when it happened, but at some point I drifted out of the orbit of atheism/agnosticism and more into apatheism. Sure, as far as I'm concerned, there are no such things as deities, spirits, magic, demons, et cetera, but I've lost any investment in whether or not that position is correct. After all, they could very easily exist, and I could simply be unable to perceive them or their effects on my life. But I understand that other people DO perceive such things. And I'm okay with that. But it had always irritated me, even if I never understood why, when other people weren't okay with people's differing understandings of the world.

I understand most people's dislike of Indifferentism - especially when they equate it to moral relativism or amorality (well, Christians mainly - few other people seem to care).

Practical atheism is not the denial of the existence of God, but complete godlessness of action; it is a moral evil, implying not the denial of the absolute validity of the moral law but simply rebellion against that law.
Étienne Borne
It did, however, always rub me the wrong way, mainly because I felt that people, especially my friends, who felt more strongly about things (one way or the other) than I did often became two-faced. They were warm and solicitous when they felt that I was receptive to being fully converted, but contemptuous and dismissive when I remained disinterested. I'd always believed that it was the two-facedness of it that bothered me, but recently I was in an online debate where it finally crystallized. The person on the other side of the back-and-forth was a self-proclaimed Christian (I refuse to be the gatekeeper of such things) and made the following statements over the course of a single posting:
Christians do not claim to be able to prove that God exists. We believe there is good evidence that He does and that it is a logical conclusion to believe that. We admit though that since there is not conclusive proof, it still takes faith to believe in God.
However God has given us enough evidence to hold us accountable. Romans 1:19-20 “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
This idea, that faith is not a choice, to be made based on a rational decision making process, but a divine mandate, and one can be held accountable for its lack points to an idea that comes up over and over in religious debates: that the Abrahamic god is special. Not simply because it is a deity and we are not, but because the rules that it operates under bear no viable relationship to the rules that we operate under.

Imagine a lawsuit where the verdict hinges on whether or not one party knew, or should have known, about a particular event. The plaintiff's attorney stands up in front of the court and openly says that they cannot prove that the event in question ever occurred because there is no conclusive proof of it. The lawyer states that while they believe the event occurred, it requires an act of faith to share in that belief. They then tell the jury that this same event is so clearly self-evident that there is no excuse for not having that faith, simply because an unknown author describes it as such.

And that's when it clicked. Because I could see a jury voting in favor of the plaintiff in such a case. While I can't see myself ever doing so, I can understand that it's possible to simultaneously regard an event as being absolutely unprovable, yet universally self-evident at the same time.

In a way, it's a vestige of the agnostic in me. I can't think of any concept that's both self-evident to all yet provable to none. To be honest, it strikes me as openly paradoxical. But that, in and of itself, doesn't mean that no such concept exists or that other people cannot think of one. Therefore, the lack of a self-evident yet unprovable concept is a feature of my universe, but not necessarily anyone else's.

Which resolves an ongoing irritation for me - the idea that my allowing that belief in something that I do not believe in is reasonable should be answered by an allowance that my not believing in something that others believe in is reasonable.

If, given A (the universe as we understand it) and B (deities do not exist), it is reasonable to believe C (deities do exist) it should stand to reason that given A and C is it reasonable to believe B. But, if one assumes enough of a difference between B and C, then it is possible to understand that A+B allows C yet A+C disallows B.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Everyone's Allowed To Play

As a casual gamer, and not someone terribly interested in broader social issues in entertainment, I'm something of a bystander when it comes when it comes to questions about diversity in gaming. And as someone without much of a stake in the issue, I tend to take what strikes me as the simple view on things. People play games, and to a certain extent, write games, in order to imagine themselves in other places, times and circumstances. And given that games tend to reflect people's imaginations, they are only as diverse as their imaginations are. And most people have very limited imaginations.

Now, where exactly the limits are is open to debate. Some people blame creators for not stepping outside of their own limits, and some people blame audiences for not being open to including people unlike them in their fantasies. For me, the blame game is secondary.

What we need are more people, telling more stories. My conceptualization of a near future science-fiction setting where humanity has colonized the Solar System has a metric truckload of Asians in it. Why? Because China and India are really populous places, and they are unlikely to be left out of the land grab that moving into space would entail. If you assume a breakdown of national borders in space, you can pretty much rest assured that there will be Chinese and Indians just about everywhere you go, and Mandarin and Hindi will be spoken everywhere. So it strikes me as realistic that humanity in space would look much different then suburban America. But if I want this near future science-fiction game (or any science-fiction game where the majority of humans come from the Earth as we understand it today) to come to fruition - then I should write one, and make it clear to any artists I commission what my expectations are. And then I put it out there, and see if it swims. In the same vein, if I want to see a game where roles for Africans and African-Americans don't come across as tokens, then I should write that, and put it out there. If people appreciate it, they'll buy it.

If I write a good game, people aren't really going to care about what origins I give the sample characters, or what ethnicities are represented in the in-game fiction. They might have some appreciation of it, but it's unlikely to directly drive sales. But if people are going to insist on Space Suburbia or the carefully crafted focus-group "multiculturalism" of TV dramas, then I should expect that's what people are going to make - because at the end of the day, making games in a business, and business is about taking someone else's money and making it your money by providing them with a good or service that they're willing to pay for.

Friday, November 14, 2014


Social contracts made between entities of unequal power are always tricky, and they become even more so when the terms of the agreement don't really have a one-to-one mapping with the interests of one or both parties.

The social contract that "low skilled" workers of the baby boom generation thought that they were entering into seems to have gone something like this: "In return for labor and loyalty to the company's interests, the company will in turn take care of the workforce." And on a greater level, another agreement could be characterized as: "Work hard, play by the rules, and everything will be okay going forward." This arrangement worked well for some time. But as society changed, the companies (or rather, the people running them) found that their interests were no longer being served by that arrangement. There is always a danger, when one makes a commitment, that future circumstances will conspire to render either party unable or unwilling to live up to that commitment. And since the primary interest of any for-profit enterprise is (unsurprisingly) profits, as the opportunity to increase profits by moving jobs outside the company and/or outside the country presented itself, there was pressure from those people who stood to gain the most from increased profitability to take advantage of those opportunities.

A company here or a factory there doesn't make a national crisis. But when the greater society decided wholesale that the old agreement wasn't cutting it anymore, people started running into trouble in large numbers. Lacking any real leverage other than the social contract itself, they had no way of punishing organizations that reneged on the agreed-upon terms. Meanwhile, those above them on the social ladder, the college-educated professional class and knowledge workers, were too busy pressing for more cost cutting (in the name of making it easier for them to purchase their way into the appearance of affluence) or (although quite often, and) sneering unsympathetically at people who they chose to characterize as lazy and/or stupid - in any event, not as worthy as themselves.

The sending of jobs outside of borders can be a boon to a society, so long as the driving force is to shed those jobs that are "wasting" a portion of the workforce that would otherwise be available for "bigger and better" things. But often, the idea is to simply find poorer people to do the work, relying on more abject poverty, a relative difference in standards of living (or both) to lower prices, while at the same time capturing the difference, rather than passing it on to customers.

The Paradox of Thrift can be summed up quite simply - an economy that depends on a certain velocity of money suffers when enough people begin to hoard wealth, and even though individuals help themselves through such hoarding, the reduction or even cessation of income (due to others' hoarding) means that all but the independently wealthy eventually starve.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Or Pay Me Later

I'm of the opinion that government governs best that is the most governed by the people it would seek to govern. That is the public oversight of government is an essential part of good governance. I've made my point about Good Shepherds, and the fact that they eat mutton and wear wool, but I would add to that that Shepherds tend to see themselves as indispensable to their flocks, but may not see the flock as indispensable to them.

But exercising oversight over government is difficult, especially when we want the government to be able to keep secrets on our behalf, or to be free to act against people who make us angry or frightened. It's like spending the money up-front to have something done well - even though it pays off in the end, the very fact that it limits later problems works against it. And so we don't do it - even though we know how that's going to work out.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Audience Participation

Went to a digital photography expo put on by a local camera store, and sat in on the "Mastering Your Indoor Lighting" class taught by James Schmelzer. At one point, he asked a young woman from the audience to help him show technique, as she had a different skin tone than the model who was helping him out.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Brother, Can You Spare a Five?


In the past roughly 6 months leading up to Tuesday's elections, I have received roughly 800 unsolicited political e-mail messages, sometimes as many as 30 in a day, almost all of them asking me for money. And this does not count those e-mails which wound up in my Junk folder. By the way, the fact that the election is over has not halted the e-mails.

The number of e-mails that I have received from this Borowitz guy, or anyone claiming to be associated with him, to raise money for schools or roads? 0.

If he wants to be pissed off about how people are contributing and/or spending their money, he's welcome to. But I honestly feel that he, his followers, or whoever else is posting these pictures would be better served by starting an organization and doing some fundraising themselves.

One thing that I have noticed about political fundraisers - they do not give up. The fact that I have ignored their appeals for money for literally *years* has not convinced them to quit spamming my inbox with "one last request" for $5. (And yes, a lot of them ask for no more than $5.) They have even taken to common tactics used by spammers in an attempt to get past spam filters. (Why haven't I blacklisted them? Because I'm actually noting how the pitches change over time, and general rate of diffusion of my name and e-mail address to different campaigns.)

If the $5 that I'm constantly being pestered to donate in the name of partisan politics is better spent on a road somewhere or a school that I don't have a child to send to, you wouldn't know it from the contents of my inbox. Someone has decided that it's worth a fair amount of effort and money to work to convince me to invest in politics.

And you know what they say - if you can't beat them, join them.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

In Theory

When someone says to me: "It's just a theory," what I hear is: "I believe in science, and I don't want it to be amoral."

For my part, I was not raised within a religious tradition that required the Bible to be an inerrant historical document - it was a religious text, and that was that. So I could rely on science texts to tell me what is, and turn to scriptures to inform me as to what ought to be. And as it turns out, the broad majority of people tend to believe in the accuracy of the scientific method to explain the world to us - it's important to keep in mind that for many people their disagreements with the scientific community are not about the efficacy of science itself - it's with the honesty of the scientific establishment, which is often viewed as pushing Leftist and/or atheistic agendas.

For almost all of the few creationists I know, the understanding is that the Bible exists  to tell them both what was (and to a certain degree, what is) and what ought to be - and that these two things are inseparable. So if the Bible is not an accurate account of what was, then it is not a reliable guide of what ought to be. So threatening one is often viewed as an attack on the other. While for many of us there is no workable path from "Mankind evolved, over tens of thousands or millions of years from an apelike ancestor on the plains of what is now Africa," to, "There is nothing fundamentally wrong with rape, murder and/or genocide;" for people who understand that the literal historicity of the Genesis account is what makes the Ten Commandments any more compelling than any other rule someone might come up with, anything that undermines Biblical inerrancy is a dire threat.

And it's important to understand that many religious people do not have a problem with the idea science - but they are motivated to doubt the accuracy of scientific findings that fly in the face of the worldview that they hold. By the same token, a lot of effort goes into attempting to square their understandings with modern scientific practices, and any discoveries that appear to support their beliefs are widely touted.

In my estimation, if the religious were as scientifically ignorant as they are portrayed, they wouldn't bother attacking the bona-fides of the ideas that the disagree with - they'd simply discount the usefulness of the whole enterprise. The goal of the secular shouldn't be to use science as a weapon against the beliefs of others. It simply prolongs a fight that no-one can win.

Today and Tomorrow

Three quotes.

To cut the tax out on these certain types of income - business income - is an incentive for people to hire more people, and they're going to pay taxes to Kansas. That's the way this is supposed to work.
Leslie D. Donovan, Sr., Kansas State Senate (R - Wichita)

You hire people not based on how much money you have - but based on your business. So it didn't really have immediate help on the business. I didn't really notice any more business purchasing, you know, around here. So didn't really trigger anything to hire more employees.
Alex Harb, United States Small Business Administration's Kansas Small Business Person of the Year, 2014

I'm sorry, it takes people a long time adjust to new a tax code. It takes a long time, and that's why I do all of my work over a decade and look at what the results are over long periods of time which is what a governor should do when he governs or she governs a state. And to expect that to occur in the first year is - is nonsense.
Authur Laffer, Economist, member of Ronald Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board, Wall Street Journal columnist
After soliciting the quote from Authur Laffer, NPR's Zoe Chace points out that state governors are not elected for 10-year terms - they tend to have four years to make things happen. Viewed in this light, it's likely that the reason why Sam Brownback is in political hot water, with even prominent Kansas Republicans endorsing his Democratic challenger is that, like most politicians, he avoided framing his policy for what it really was - uncertain. It's a uncertainty where the pain of shrinking state budgets - and the resulting loss of services (and public-sector jobs) was a given and immediate, while the benefit of increased growth - and the revenue from shifted taxes was only a possibility and in the future. While Governor Brownback described what he was doing as an "experiment," what many people heard was "surefire thing," as noted in the quote from state Senator Donovan.

Governor Brownback and Athur Laffer (whom the governor consulted before implementing this plan) are both convinced that Kansas had set tax rates above the optimal level set by the Laffer Curve, and so, given enough time, the money that the state of Kansas is forgoing now will be multiplied in the future. But without having set expectations as to what that time frame would be, and what the interim would look like, the governor is now in the uncomfortable position of either hoping that something unlikely will happen or that the public believes him when he says that the growth is coming any day now (something that even Laffer may disputer with him).

Business people like Alex Harb didn't immediately run out and hire more people in the way that Governor Brownback proposed that they would because businesses are generally reactive. They wait until they're more or less sure that they need to make certain expenditures, and then make them. Which is why Supply-Side economics takes so long to get off the ground - it may help enterprises be ready for upticks in business, but it doesn't do anything to directly stimulate those upticks because it doesn't spur demand for goods and services at the public level. It makes sense to assume that when businesses prepare for the future, the money they put into doing so may result in a modest net increase in employment. That modest number of new workers may, in turn, put pressure on the the businesses they patronize to provide better service, meaning that more new workers need to be brought on. One can see how the snowball effect would work. But the more diffuse the initial preparations are, the smaller the snowball starts. Alex Harb noted that he increased his inventory of iPads at his Ribbit Computers stores with the money that he was no longer paying in business taxes. Which would have kicked off the snowball - were iPads made in Kansas. In a globalized economy, the effects of business investment can easily diffuse completely out of the area they are intended to stimulate, making the snowball even smaller.

The idea that lowering business taxes will link directly to greater hiring is a side effect of a particular tenet of Republican economic orthodoxy - that a lot of hiring is effectively a form of charity and business owners are inherently charitable people. But jobs, more than simply being a way in which people support themselves, are also the way in which things are accomplished - how the goods and services that people need and want are created. Simply allowing businesses to lower their taxes does not increase the level of goods and services that the public needs or wants; or can afford to obtain. Until conservative economics is able to bridge that gap, its experiments are going to fail, brought down by the same unrealistic expectations that created the enthusiasm for them in the first place.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

One Way

The news that Brittany Maynard has determined that she's feeling well enough that she doesn't fear missing her opportunity to avoid a painful and prolonged death has some religious conservatives openly wondering if she "may not be so anxious to end it all on Saturday, after all." This focus on her refusal to not wait "for God to take her home according to His timetable," has lead to the debate over the ethics and/or morality of her choice to assert control over the time and manner of her death to take on an aspect of judgement that threatens to poison the discourse around end-of-life issues.

If you are saying that it is dignified and brave for a cancer patient to kill themselves, what are you saying about cancer patients who don’t?
Matt Walsh, There Is Nothing Brave About Suicide
(Emphasis in original.) Personally, I'm not saying anything about the people who stick it out to the bitter end. For my part, if I'm going to call someone a coward, then I'll call them a coward directly, rather than imply it through referring to someone else as brave.

For Matt Walsh, "Brave" is a constant. If something is brave for one person, it must be brave for all people, and only those people who take the same path are worthy of the label. But the world that we live in does not work this way - we commonly (and perhaps too readily) refer to soldiers, police officers and firefighters as brave. But we don't then take that to mean that anyone who once considered joining the armed forces, walking a beat or rushing to the scene of a blaze but decided to pursue another calling must be a coward. According to Matt Walsh, anyone who labels Mrs. Maynard as brave cannot also respect the courage of "a woman who fights to the end, survives for as long as she can, and withers away slowly, in agony, until her very last breath escapes her lungs." I would argue that point with him.

For me, bravery is not a rote series of steps that one takes - it is an understanding that someone is facing up to something that they have a legitimate fear of.

Many people fear dying. I see that as a legitimate thing to be afraid of - after all, we put a remarkable amount of effort into postponing death, even when we know it's only for a relatively short period. Many people fear agonizing pain. I also see that as a legitimate thing to be afraid of. I also understand that not all people fear both of these, and there are some people who fear neither. (I envy the latter group - which I suspect may be part of the reason I have yet to join them.)

Which of these Brittany Maynard is most afraid of, and which one she is willing to trade for the other is for her to decide; not Matt Walsh, or anyone else. I understand the commonly-espoused Christian ideal that there is an obligation to trust that dying is not to be feared and enduring the fear and suffering brought by agony is rewarded. And I respect people who take it upon themselves to honor that obligation. But I am less approving of those who would tell us that we must honor them - and that we must do so by denigrating anyone who makes a different choice.

Unlike most of us, Brittany Maynard is faced with a real-life Sadistic Choice. Her death, at some point, is a given. If she hastens it too much, she misses out on part of a life she appears to love very much and spending time with her husband, her family and the other people she loves. If she does nothing, she may possibly "develop potentially morphine-resistant pain and suffer personality changes and verbal, cognitive and motor loss of virtually any kind." I can imagine few, if any, of us would willingly trade the life we currently have for either of those options.

So why not see actively making and owning that choice, regardless of which option is chosen, as courageous?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Argumentum Ab Timor

I was, honestly, unsurprised to find the message in my inbox. We have a fairly well-understood tendency, as a society, to "vote our fears," and, it must be said, that shootings in schools evoke quite a bit of fear.

Still, it seemed somehow gratuitous, if for no other reason than it gave the appearance of linking Initiative 594 to a solution to such issues. I have yet to hear if Jaylen Fryberg obtained the weapon he used in the shooting via a means that I-594 would have possibly prevented. But if he simply picked up a legally-owned gun belonging to a family member, it seems that better firearms storage protocols, which are not covered by the initiative, could have possibly done more good than "closing the gun-show loophole."

There is a general impulse to look at gun violence and gun violence as if they were the same, monolithic issue. Which is understandable, but I think it also misses the point, and makes the overall issue difficult to solve. It's true - firearms can make otherwise nebbishy people dangerous, and allow them to murder a number of people in one stroke, rather than one at a time. But there are plenty of tools of murder available to the determined, and if we don't find a way to curb the impulse of seeing killings, of others and of self, as a solution to the problems of life, simply taking a single tool out of the toolbox won't be as effective as we like to think. But if we do concentrate on reducing the impulse for violence in out communities, steps that we take to curb access to specific weapons will be even more effective.

Which is not to say that the backers of Initiative 594 should abandon their goals. But I do think that in trying to link the initiative to what may very well be an unrelated incident, they're overselling the product that they're offering.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Party Off

Crystal Wright, a Black Republican woman, took Stacey Dash, another Black Republican woman, to task over comments that Wright says were: "[...] insulting and give blacks another reason to tune out the GOP and not take our party seriously." Wright comments that Dash described black people in Louisiana as "government freeloaders who don't work." She goes on to quote Dash:

"They're getting money for free. They feel worthless. They're uneducated. I mean, as long as you are that way, they can keep you under their control ..."

"They have a plantation mentality," Dash said. "As long as they give you this much money, you'll stay right there. You don't need to know too much because if you do, you might start thinking for yourself."
Black Republican actress' racist remarks hurt GOP
For Wright, this is the wrong approach. "Whether you're white or black," Wright says, "it's never cool to invoke metaphors of slavery, which was a gruesome, painful institution protected by Democrats in America that went on way too long. Conservatives should remind Americans of the history of slavery and how the Democratic Party perpetuates policies of paternalism that don't benefit blacks."

Interestingly, in a way, Wright is doubling down on Dash's statements. Both Wright and Dash are accusing national Democrats of being controlling and paternalistic. And in doing so, both are invoking the United States of a century and a half or so ago. In the end, Wright claims that Dash's comments are insulting and damaging to the Republicans, because Dash feels that the Democrat's alleged tactics are working. For her part, Wright is claiming... well, I'm not sure. According to Wright, fellow Black Republican Deroy Murdock gave a "much more reasoned commentary" on why African-Americans should look to the Republican party when he said: "Black folks show up and vote 95% for Obama, 95% for Landrieu and ...what do you get? Eighteen years of poverty under Mary Landrieu in Louisiana." Wright goes on to point out that "Murdock said that under Obama's presidency, black poverty and dependence on food stamps has increased and home ownership has declined." Wright describes many people in the African-American electorate as having a "blind allegiance to Democrats." She points out that this loyalty has not paid off. Likewise, the comments made by Stacey Dash were made in the context of a discussion of "how blacks in Louisiana have voted for Landrieu since electing her in 1997 but have not benefited from it."

I understand Wright's irritation at Dash's characterization of Louisiana's African-America voters as freeloaders who don't think for themselves, and are thus controlled by cynical White Democrats, and the equally cynical mixed-race President. But I don't know that it's any less insulting to chalk things up to a misplaced blind loyalty. Dash portrays the voters she criticizes as sellouts, purchasing government benefits through avoiding critical thought and voting for people who have no respect for them. In Wright's formulation, they're simply beggars, voting for people who have no respect for them, and receiving nothing in return. For Stacy Dash, Black voters have made a cynical and unwise bargain, trading away their self-reliance for the tenuous security of government benefits doled out by disdainful masters. But this is better than the scenario Crystal Wright envisions, in which those same voters have instead purchased dependence and poverty - their bargain was just as unwise, without being smart enough to be nakedly self-serving.

In her CNN op-ed, Wright portrays the Democrats as effectively the same party that they were in the 1860s, when they warred with the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. However she avoids the time, in the 1960s, when the Democrats went to bat for national Civil Rights legislation, and the Republican Party moved in to the pick up the votes of White southerners who felt threatened by the retreat of "state's rights," racial segregation and White supremacy and nationalism. But that was a while back, and so the question posed by one of Wright's fellow Black Republicans, Louisiana State Senator Elbert Guillory, "What have the Democrats done for us lately?" is a valid one, I suspect the answer would be: "Just as much as the Republicans have done" - except for the fact that the Republican push for voter identification laws is commonly seen as a push to disenfranchise traditionally Democratic constituencies - like Blacks.

The problem that Republicans have with African-American voters is not one of slavish (and I use that term with all due consideration) loyalty to the Democratic party or that random Black Republicans make stupid comments now and again. It's that, despite contrition for and denunciation of it, Republicans still seem to be wedded to the Southern Strategy, which requires that Blacks and Hispanics (and now, possibly Middle Easterners) be publicly treated as the enemy in exchange for the votes of the "state's rights," racial segregation and White supremacy and nationalism constituency that the Democrats have been abandoning for the past 50 years. This leads them to plead for Black votes now, in exchange for policies friendly to Black people later. And, frankly, I suspect that people don't believe them. The Democrats may not have brought home the bacon for 50 years, but when they did, they went all out. As long as the Republicans can't convince themselves to make the same leap, they can argue amongst themselves all they want.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


For these guys, the timing of yesterday's shooting couldn't have been worse if someone had planned it that way. So, of course, people are alleging that a plan is exactly what happened.
Google "SWAT training Marysville, HS" and you'll see the post this newscaster read from the Marysville School District that announces the training.

Just "so happens" there's a big gun bill the Dems are trying to pass next month in Washington State! Convenient.
YouTube - where else?
The shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School occurred at around 10:30 yesterday morning. By noon, the "false flag" accusations were already up and running. Which should come as a surprise to no-one, really. After all, there are dueling initiatives concerning firearms on the ballot for this year. And those ballots arrived in the mail late last week.
There's no such thing as coincidences
The mantra of the the conspiracy theorist (also, unsurprisingly, from YouTube)
For my part, I'm not the conspiratorial type. So the idea that there is a shadowy cabal of bumbling imbeciles ineptly running the world and carefully staging events with obvious holes in them doesn't compute for me. But then again, I'm okay with the world being a more or less random place. The other side of that, though, is that if you ask me what the world should look like, I can't tell you. There are 7.2 billion people (give or take) on Earth right now, and the state of the planet is a direct result of the decisions that those people make, and the way they interact with one another, and the decisions that people before them have made. Given that, the idea that it is somehow impossible for a young man to embark on a murder-suicide rampage within two weeks of Election Day, simply because one of the issues to be decided in that election has to do with guns, strikes me as bizarre. Is there, somewhere, an anti-firearms activist who could be regarded as insufficiently upset at the deaths of two people and the injuries to others, because they feel that the shock value of this news will help Initiative 594 to pass? I don't know, but it seems like a safe enough bet. But that, in and of itself is not proof that they picked up the phone and whispered a code word into someone's ear at 10 am yesterday.

My father taught me that the definition of "obvious" was something so crystal-clear that you're the only person who sees it. And so, I understand that the murkiness of the world, which permeates my daily existence, may not be real for other people. And I shouldn't expect it to be real to them. The world they live in, with its backroom dealings and plots within plots, works for them. Therefore, it doesn't have to work for me. But I do find it interesting.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


One of the problems with American English is its imprecision, a trait which is exacerbated by, among other things, our habit of looking to obtain people's attention through a certain amount of exaggeration, if not hyperbole.

When I was growing up, the term "privileged" meant that more or less the rules were different for different people, and they tended to favor the privileged at the expense of others. Consider the plight of Japanese-Americans interned during the Second World War. A significant amount of their property was expropriated by whites in the communities that they had been removed from and for a long time this wasn't considered unjustified theft. Or, to use an example with which I am more personally acquainted, in my freshman year of college, a football player cut in line in front of another student in the cafeteria. When she complained, the football player struck her hard enough to knock her unconscious. He was never disciplined - at a school that otherwise allowed for fairly draconian punishments for infractions such as missing classes too often. This is what I understood to be "privileged" - there were literally, if not formally, two (or more) sets rules in play. But now that "privilege" has entered the broad public discourse, the definition has expanded.

There are many different ways to define and conceptualize privilege, but one that makes sense for me (as a person of privilege) is that privilege is the freedom to not notice difference.Taste Privilege and GamerGate
Now, this sometimes irks me, but I understand the expansion of the concept, especially as it pertains to social justice circles. But it's still hard for me to understand the current definition of privilege as anything other than "Person A isn't as miserable in their life as Person B is in theirs, and that's unfair." Which to be sure, it a legitimate way of understanding it. It doesn't work that well for me, but hey, I'm old. But I'm also willing to be hip to the times, and use the language as other people use it.

But I do think that the older understanding of what it means to be privileged is useful, and something that should be preserved. Because being able to punch someone out without consequences is really something very different than simply not needing to care that what works for you doesn't always work for others. So, we'll just have to find a new word for it. "Exempt" strikes me as a useful term, because it really gets to the heart of things. Some people are, for whatever reason, exempt from the rules that the rest of us have to live with. And those exemptions are very helpful to them, as I suspect that the football player, whether he appreciated it or not, benefited a good deal from not being expelled from school as the rest of us had been told that the rules dictated.

In the end, I realize, I'm in the minority. For many people all levels of privilege are effectively the same, and all are to be stamped out. Which is all well and good. But when it's all a single amorphous mass, it's hard to see progress being made. And the fact that the egregious behaviors that privilege once encompassed are now being frowned upon matters. We should speak in a way that allows us to see that.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

You Bastards!

Hatred is an isometric shooter with disturbing atmosphere of mass killing, where player takes the role of a cold blood antagonist, who is full of hatred for humanity. It's a horror, but here YOU are the villain.
I've found the internet debate around this game to be interesting, in part because there seems to be a thread that this particular exploration of the dark side of humanity will somehow be the single straw that breaks the camel's back.

Ever since I was in junior high school (likely before that even), computer programmers have been making games where the primary activity has been to move an avatar around the screen and shoot computer-generated people. Or mutants or aliens or what-have-you. Brøderbund software even had a game named, literally, "If It Moves, Shoot It!" What makes Hatred a horror game, and the player's avatar a villain isn't the activity - it's the reasoning. It can be argued that in more traditional Shoot'em ups that the computer-generated targets fight back. Sure, but, as an article I once read pointed out, the oppositions in computer games is never really about putting up a fair or intelligent fight - they exist to be "killed" by the player. An acquaintance of mine who works in the video game industry noted that if First-person shooters were anything like real life, your character would likely at some point find himself face down in a pool of his or her own blood with no idea what hit them.

I understand the discomfort at the idea of pretending to be a spree killer as a form of entertainment, although I think that at least some of it is born of the uncharitable assumption that there is a sizable number of people out there for whom it would be unambiguously entertaining. But in the end, all of these sorts of games simply offer different pretend reasons for different flavors of pretend violence. Hatred is no exception.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

One Thousand Words

Everyone has a theory about why representative government in the United States doesn't work as well as it could, or as most of us would like it to. Here, I illustrate part of my own theory.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Law More Perfect

This year, here in Washington State, we're going to have dueling ballot initiative around firearms. I've read them both, and between them, they're about 19 pages. About 18 of which are from Initiative 594, "Washington Universal Background Checks for Gun Purchases." The description of I 594, is follows: "This measure would apply currently used criminal and public safety background checks by licensed dealers to all firearm sales and transfers, including gun show and online sales, with specific exceptions."

How that relatively straightforward sentence became 18 pages of legalese is illustrative, as it really lays out the difficulties inherent in "closing loopholes in the law." Generally speaking, I understand the purpose behind criminals laws to be establishing a recognized avenue for sanctioning persons who engage in certain behavior that the populace (or its recognized representatives) have decided are undesirable. While this seems like a simple enough process, it runs into problems when intent is to be taken into account, and when it's hard to look at an act in a vacuum and decide whether or not it's one of the certain undesirable behaviors that has been legislated against.

The opponents of I 594 (many of whom support the counter-initiative, I 591) are correct when they point out that a lot of seemingly innocuous activities may count as "transfers" under the new law and may therefore be criminal under the letter of the law. And from my reading of the law, they're correct when they point out that loaning your sister-in-law a gun to protect herself, loaning your adult sons shotguns to go hunting or a police officer loaning a personal firearm to a fellow officer would all run afoul of the restrictions on transfers. In fact, I can think if a circumstance in which I took a gun from a friend who was having an acute mental health crisis for safekeeping that would, if this law went through, likely require a background check and moving the weapon through a licensed dealer. It would all be terribly inconvenient (although I suspect that the police wouldn't bother arresting me for that). And so I understand the issues that gun-rights activists have with this law. But part of their argument is the following:

We deserve the protection of a well-written background check law that protects the right of privacy for lawful firearms owners.
So, I would ask, what's stopping them from writing it?

Sunday, October 12, 2014


I distinctly remember being told that Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Nixed Messages

"If someone outraged me by publishing naked photos of my body, I'm pretty certain my next move would NOT be to then pose semi-naked for a national magazine, especially with a cockatoo."
Bruce Kasanoff "Why Jennifer Lawrence Confuses Me"
This is why we have so much difficulty with consent in our society. Because people become confused by the idea that whether or not someone consents to an act has any place in the moral calculus.

Or... do they? People give money to charity. That money, once they have given it, is usually the given charity's, to do with as they please. Using Mr. Kasanoff's logic here, if someone stole money from me to give it to a charity, and I was outraged about that, it would "send confusing signals" for me to donate money to a charity. Because I'm obviously outraged that charities have my money, right?

Of course, when I swap out nude and semi-nude pictures, and insert money, Mr. Kasanoff sounds like a complete and utter moron, which I really doubt is the case. So what changed? The fact that in the United States, the nudity taboo is alive and well, and so, "clearly," what Ms. Lawrence was outraged about was people seeing her naked - because it appears to be the only topic that carries any moral weight. It's the same thing when we talk about sexuality - there was a time when the sexual history of a woman who had been raped was fair game, because if she had shown a willingness to sleep with other people out of wedlock, why was it a problem if yet one more person decided to help himself? Even though that is no longer (generally) considered an acceptable legal defense, the train of thought still rolls on in some places.

Outside of "victimless crimes," nearly every criminal offense is really about acting without consent. It isn't, for instance, illegal for me to enter someone's home, and leave with $100 more than I had when I arrived. That person could have owed me $100 for some good or service that I had performed for them, or perhaps I had just borrowed the money. What is illegal is for me to use stealth or force to take the $100 from them without their consent - even if the other person owed me the money, or I was only intending to borrow it for a time. This concept, which we don't typically find hard to grasp, applies to everything - including nudity and sex. As Mr. Kasanoff notes, Ms. Lawrence is free to have as many nude pictures taken of herself as she wants, under any circumstances that appeal to her. But as long as those photographs are her lawful property, she has an absolute right to dictate who may see/distribute them, and under what circumstances. If she happens to drop prints of half of them from an airplane over Los Angeles, the other half are still off-limits without permission. Just as if Mr. Kasanoff had $1,000,000 in cash - if he dropped half of it from an airplane over Los Angeles, it would still be a crime for anyone to help themselves to so much as a penny of the remainder without Mr. Kasanoff's express permission. The apparent gulf between asking first and the act itself makes no difference in either case.

Let me point out that sexuality is not the only taboo topic that works this way. I've encountered people who appear to have genuine difficulty with the idea that I might allow a trusted friend to refer to me as "Nigger," but would consider the same from them to be overly familiar (even if I understood that they didn't mean offense by it), and thus transgressive. Like Mr. Kasanoff, they tend to assume that since I've gotten over the general taboo against the word, that I now have no issue with it at all, from anyone. And this leads them to become confused (and sometimes, angry) when I withhold permission from them

It's (way) past time that we stopped letting the taboos that we have around nudity, sexuality and language blind us to the fact that they are not necessarily moral outrages in and of themselves. Otherwise, people like Mr. Kasanoff may never get it.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Versus Them

I am, one might say, only marginally attached to gaming culture. I enjoy games, but I don't really consider myself a gamer per se. So I've been observing the battles of self-described Social Justice Warriors (and Rogues and Clerics and Rangers {It's a Gamer Thing. I'm not sure that I understand...}) against the forces of Evil in (guy) gamer culture with a certain amount of detachment.

And when I look at things from a distance, while I understand the anger at, and the desire to vanquish, the perceived "sexists, recreational misogynists and bigots," I think that it misses the point.

The gamification of misogyny predates the internet, but right now, in this world full of angry, broken, lost young men convinced that women have robbed them of some fundamental win in life, it's rampant.
Social Justice Warriors and the New Culture War
This statement that Ms. Penny makes, seems, to me, to hold the keys. If the gamification of misogyny is a symptom of angry, broken, lost young men who feel that they have been deprived of a fundamental win in life, then isn't it logical that the solution is to provide these men with the win that will soothe their anger, repair them and show them the way without needing to inflict pain on others? Of the conflict in the gaming community, Ms. Penny says: "This is a culture war. The right side is winning, at great cost." Which I understand. The idea that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice is a common one. I don't think that anyone believes that this will still be an issue twenty years from now, or more than likely that it will even take that long to resolve. But, earlier in the piece, Ms. Penny had also made this point: "Gender isn't a game you can play and win by brutalizing and harassing and shaming and hurting the other 'side'." But as I see it, the whole of her op-ed is about shaming the other side.
They can't understand why they look ridiculous.

[T]here's nothing the sad, mad little boys who hate women and queers and people of color can do about it.
When I was in college, we were discussing domestic violence in class - it's roots, and who was at fault. And one person in the class made a statement that has always stuck with me. "It's clear that people learn this from the society around them, but we can still hold them responsible and punish them for allowing themselves to learn it." What I don't understand is why this is better than unteaching it.

As I've grown older, I've come to understand that "traditional masculinity" is a box, and any attempt to leave it is punishable. I know that it feels good to think of defeating the "terrified [...] mouthbreathing manchild misogynists," and punishing them for the "adversity, [...] shame[,...] pain and constant reminders of our own worthlessness" that they dished out. But if the very existence of the gamification of misogyny is the result of people attempting to deal with adversity, shame, pain and the constant reminders of their own worthlessness themselves, what are we really gaining when we enlist those tools as our weapons? If the so-called sexists, recreational misogynists and bigots have created their own worst enemies with these tools, why are the self-proclaimed Social Justice Warriors so certain that they aren't about to do the same? I understand the impulse to see those that injure you out of their own injuries as complicit in the wounds that lead to them being angry, broken and lost. I understand the impulse to see the "right" side of things as self-evident and to understand that opposing it is ironclad proof that "the other" is willfully and deliberately of insufficient intelligence and sensitivity to be worth saving. I was there, once.

"They" may be losing, but they haven't yet lost. In fact, for a time, they've won. Not because of the great personal costs that they've exacted from Anita Sarkeesian, Leigh Alexander, Zoe Quinn, Jennifer Lawrence, Laurie Penny and those that love, support and respect them. But because their hurts and losses have robbed them of their compassion for others; and their lack of compassion is robbing others of theirs. Gender oppression may create a world were everyone loses, but so do anger, hatred and hurt. They all do this through creating a broader culture where hounding and brutalizing and harassing and shaming and injuring others is the normal way of attempting to heal themselves, despite it's woefully poor track record. When we understand this, yet we deal in them anyway because the ignorance, weakness and/or evil intent of those we oppose make it right; and because we've convinced ourselves it will work out differently when we do it - we've become the servants of our pain, and not its masters.