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?