Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Cluster of Yellow

I hundred tiny yellow flowers, all in a bunch.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Silence Bubbles

Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak at Berkeley this coming Wednesday, but university administrators have cancelled the event, citing "active security threats." The Young America's Foundation, the Republican group that was to sponsor the event, is, unsurprisingly, crying foul, especially after it appears that the conditions that the university caved in to liberal students who wished to deny Ms. Coulter a venue.

Whether the university is being straightforward about their reasons for nixing the event or not, I don't know. But, let's presume for the moment that the Young America's Foundation is correct in their assertion that pressure from more liberal students lead the university to back out of the engagement. (And it's likely that at least a few anti-Coulter students and their allies will claim credit for this turn of events.) What has been gained?

Okay, so a speech by someone that many liberals consider hateful has been nixed. And that's really about it. The people who would have gone to hear what she has to say can still hear her speak - she planned to go to the campus and talk anyway, and I'm not certain that the school can prevent her from doing so. But even if she didn't go in person, she could always make the speech and post it on YouTube. Or summarize her remarks on television. She could send out the text of her speech in an e-mail to supporters and allow it to be passed around to other people who wish to read it. She could make it into an e-book or/and print-on-demand and offer it up for sale (or for free) on Amazon or another online bookseller. She could distribute it as a podcast for download.

I'm not the world's most creative thinker, and so I'm sure that there are lots of other ways that Ms. Coulter could get her words out to any and everyone who is willing to listen - and this could be a much larger audience than just the members of the Young America's Foundation. But even if the goal was to simply come between Ms. Coulter and expansive news coverage of her remarks, the coverage of her being denied the chance to speak during the formal event would seem to have rendered that moot. So... I don't really understand what has been gained here.

The only concrete effect of all of this seems to be that Ann Coulter will not be speaking at Berkeley as part of a formal event sanctioned by the University itself. And I don't really understand how that changes anything. It's not as if Berkeley formally places its stamp of approval on everyone who sepaks there or everything they say. And, as I noted above, nothing about this new situation prevents anyone from actually hearing what she has to say. About the only effect that I see is that some number of students can go about their day secure in the knowledge that speech they disapprove of is being given outside of any sort of official university channels. Which may be of some comfort to those individuals, but it doesn't seem to move the needle in any other way.

If one presumes that the things that Ms. Coulter is planning to say are legitimately a clear and present danger, that danger has not been mitigated. Her words can still reach a receptive audience, and if the fear is that those people will take those words to heart and act on them in unacceptable ways, nothing has been done to educate them in a different direction or convince them that their actions would be harmful. If the worry is that the in-person interaction carries some increased influence, little more than slight inconvenience has been added to overall situation - there are other places where the talk could take place that are easily reachable by the students who want to hear her.

And if the point is really as narrow as simply not having the talk at Berkeley, that smacks of NIMBYism, and all of its accompanying concerns. Simply preventing conservative speakers from formally coming to campus isn't going to get rid of the conservative students who attend the school. Even "safe space" arguments seem to be weak here. If the very presence of conservative speakers prompts one to feel unsafe as an 18 year-old freshman, it seems unlikely that college will do enough to defang the world that it will be safe for that same person when they graduate at 21 or so.

(As an aside, this was one of the things that I was dubious about when I worked with children. As much as I understood the goal of protecting them, or even sheltering them, from the nasty aspects of life in the broader world, without some experience in engaging them, all we were doing was delaying the day when they had to deal with them unprepared.)

I understand the appeal of closing oneself off from a world that seems to legitimize one's dehumanization. But that doesn't make that world go away. Sooner or later, the bubble will go away. And that world, warts and all, will be waiting.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Progress and Falsehoods

"On the left if you're consuming fake news you're 34 times more likely than the general population to be a college graduate," says [Jeff] Green[, CEO of internet advertiser Trade Desk].

If you're on the right, he says, you're 18 times more likely than the general population to to be in the top 20 percent of income earners.
The rise of left-wing, anti-Trump fake news
This was, of course, only to be expected. While "fake news" has become a buzzword for deliberate misinformation designed to mislead, in the end, the entire phenomenon is less about taking in the public than it is about taking in advertiser dollars. For those of us who don't earn money this way, the fact that even relatively obscure websites can generate enough traffic to enable someone to make a living from advertising revenue may be something of a surprise. But that's the reality of the situation, and that reality places a premium on one of the Web's primary forms of currency, the pageview.

And this isn't a new phenomenon.
Whatever the social effects of talk radio or the partisan agendas of certain hosts, it is a fallacy that political talk radio is motivated by ideology. It is not. Political talk radio is a business, and it is motivated by revenue. The conservatism that dominates today's AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits.
David Foster Wallace ("Host" Atlantic Magazine, April 2005)

All too often the truth is often secondary to what people want to hear and what they want to enjoy getting worked up about, whether it's in a sexual or righteous way. Information finds its level and its target.
Yoz Grahame (Comment on "Banning blogging, 'Toothing, and Yoz" Many2Many, 5 April 2005)
(Given this, now might be a good time to re-launch liberal talk radio.)

This combination of information seeking its own level and the fact that the dissemination of information is a business, is what is driving the shift in fake news from stories designed to appeal to the American political Right to the American political Left. Okay, so consumers (and sharers) of Right-wing fake news might be individually wealthier than most of the general public, but an overwhelmingly college-educated audience is nothing to sneeze at either, given the general wage gap between the the college-educated and their less credentialed fellow citizens.

And this is important because it points to an important concept: Education is no defense against being told what you want to hear - or other wanting other people to hear it. Fake news poses as news because that gives it the appearance of a legitimate source, and that appearance makes it more likely that, once it resonates with someone, it will be passed along to someone else as "proof" of the correctness of the audience's political sentiments. This is independent of a person's level of education; anyone can want something to be true badly enough to skip checking its veracity when it's handed to them on a plate.

Because the American Left sees itself as educated, and thus, skeptics by default, it was easy to see people on the Right, who are typically regarded as uneducated, provincial, yokels as being taken in by fake news because the purveyors of the medium were smarter than their targets. And this sentiment was likely reinforced by the laughably poor quality of some of the information presented. But one thing that following media outlets on social media has taught me is that all someone needs to respond, positively or negatively, to a news story is the headline. And headlines are often enough at least somewhat inaccurate - and that inaccuracy will often allow someone who has read the article to quickly pick out which commenters haven't. And even when people do read the pieces to which headlines are attached, the desire to be proven right is often stronger than reading comprehension. I have found myself impressed by people's ability to conclude that the main takeaway of an article is something directly contradicted by the text; someone confronted only with vague innuendo or sketchy sourcing will have a simple time of things.

If it is next to impossible to get a person to believe something that their livelihood demands that they don't, it is quite easy to get someone to believe something that their sense of the world asks that they do. Politics, by itself, will never elevate people above that.

Saturday, April 15, 2017


When the weather is nice on the weekends, I try to get out with my camera and take some pictures. I'll likely post one or two a week as an alternative to my usual griping about politics and whatnot.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


While a lot is being made over President Trump's changes in position on subjects like NATO and China, these are things that strike me as simple part of the normal process that presidents undergo when transitioning from presidential candidate to actually holding the office.

A lot of candidate Trump's campaign messaging could be boiled down to the idea that other nations in the world need the United States much more than the United States needs them, and this lopsided relationship placed the U.S. in a very strong bargaining position, one that previous administrations (especially the Obama administration) shamefully failed to take full advantage of. It's an appealing message on the campaign trail, perhaps because it frames the costs of globalization as unnecessary giveaways, when the nation could, in fact, have its cake and eat it, too.

But it seems likely to me that President Trump is learning differently. Namely, that while other nations may not hold all the cards, they do have workable hands that they can play, and this gives them a reasonable Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, should they simply choose to walk away from the table. This may be a hard sell for the President, should his core voters begin to lose faith in him, because their losses then simply become the price of doing business; one that must be paid to reap the benefits of the global economy. And to the degree that those benefits flow unequally, they're simply out of luck.

One of the lessons of politics, especially partisan politics, is that during a campaign, cold, hard truths and the things that audiences want to be told are always much more in alignment then they are when the work actually needs to be done, because everything is achievable for the person who isn't actually accountable for the results. Of course, we as a society never learn that lesson because there's always going to be someone whose position is that the hard choices and difficult trade-offs of life are simply a cover for wrongdoing, and that idea is always going to be attractive to people for whom the luck of the draw is indistinguishable from being deliberately cheated of their just deserts.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

I See Your Idiocy and Raise You...

I have to admit that I have both dread and giddy anticipation of someone attempting to go over the top of this lot.

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Getting a jump on Spring in Seattle by spending some time on the water.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Wanna Fight?

Maybe it's just the way I view the world, but it strikes me that people who take the position that "people oppose us because what we're doing is right" also seem to have a habit of picking fights with people - which then become the proof of their correctness.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Exit, Stage Left

In my experience, when people speak of media bias, they are referring to the idea that media outlets select the stories that they are going to present with an eye towards advocacy, rather than simply informing. News outlets tend to push back on this in their public statements, but sometimes it seems that this is because they don't pay much attention to their own coverage of the world.

The story, as presented by National Public Radio's "Code Switch" team, has a fairly straightforward headline: "How Offering Driver Licenses To The Undocumented Makes Roads Safer." And it has a fairly straightforward subject: some new research out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business that says "New research shows a positive safety impact of a California law that gave 800,000 people a license to drive."

Fair enough. But when you read it, the main effect that the researchers noted is a reduction in hit and run accidents. Now, maybe it's just me, but the issue that I have with hit and run accidents, when it comes to traffic safety, specifically, isn't the "and run" part of the formulation, it's the "hit" side of things. After all, unless someone does more damage or injury to the person(s) and/or vehicle(s) struck while fleeing the scene, the simple fact that they don't stick around doesn't make matters worse. You could say that in situations where the at-fault driver is the only party able to call for emergency assistance to a critically-injured person, that their leaving is a problem in and of itself, and I'll concede that point. Still, absent a change in the total number of accidents (and in the number of fatal accidents), the primary effect of California offering driver's licenses to the undocumented is a greater number of people being willing to take responsibility for having caused an accident. Which is a worthwhile outcome, but it seems odd to use that a measurement of safety.

If there is no change in the total number of traffic accidents, and no change in the number of fatal accidents, it seems to me than unless, there is a noticeable shift in the overall number of injury accidents, that driving in California is just as safe (or, I suppose, as dangerous) as it was prior to the passage of AB60.

And in this sense, both the press release from Stanford Business and the NPR article seemed more like advocacy than information. And given that, I can understand how people look at coverage of particular topics; in this case, illegal immigration into the United States; and understand that "the news media" is seeking manipulate people into a predetermined mindset. To be sure, I don't suspect that this is what is going on here. Instead, someone came upon an interesting bit of research, and quickly whipped out a story about it that, rather than skeptically examining it, simply repeated the researcher's claims. But taken with the generally sympathetic coverage of the undocumented that NPR presents, one can see how people feel that there is "an agenda" at work.

Monday, April 3, 2017


I read this online: "It's sad how victimy and unempowered people choose to make themselves." And I wondered, "Who really chooses that?"

Now, I have an internal locus of control, and so I tend to see the world around me as being highly influenced by the choices that people make, and my own life as being the sum of the choices that I've made. And I do tend to perceive people as chasing victim status, for the perceived benefits that it brings. But that's different than selecting victimization and disempowerment as deliberate life choices. Rather, as I see it, those are, at best, the side effects of other choices that we make.

Even when people see themselves as victimized and disempowered, these are typically not deliberate choices. Rather they are the way people come to see the themselves based on their understanding of the world around them. For instance, my internal locus of control tends to stand between me and and an understanding of myself as lacking agency in my life. And while I, or someone else, can say that I choose to see myself as empowered, the fact of the matter is that I don't know where that internal locus of control comes from. Learning the concept when I was in college didn't enable to make a deliberate selection. Instead it allowed me to recognize and name a facet of my personality that was already present.

Behaviors such as learned helplessness or capture bonding, even though they may be classed as "survival strategies" are not choices in the sense that a person weighs all of the options before them and makes a conscious determination to be passive in the face of unrelenting adversity or to sympathize with the interests of someone who is harassing or abusing them. That is to say, they are not strategies selected based on their effectiveness. Instead they are imposed on a person by the circumstances they find themselves in.

On the other hand, I understand the logic behind seeing a person who understands themselves to be a victim or disempowered as having deliberately made that choice. It's an ego boost for people who understand themselves as victorious or empowered to claim that they could have taken another path, but through strength of character or force of will, made the "better" choice. It's part of building ourselves up by climbing over others, and it's a common facet of human nature.

Judging people who have been induced to see themselves as "victimy and unempowered" does nothing for them, despite what those who see judgment as an incentive to change might tell you. Understanding the aspects of their lives that lead them to perceive themselves as victimized and disempowered, however, could open the way to changing those things. And that has a much better chance of revealing a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

April Flower

Friday, March 31, 2017

Side Vs. Side

[B]ack in September, Flynn made it clear how he felt about people who seek immunity.

"When you are given immunity, that means you have probably committed a crime," Flynn said  during an interview with MSNBC commentator Chuck Todd.
Michael Flynn's comments about immunity last year are coming back to bite him
While I will admit that this prompts me to look askance as General Flynn, in the end, that's because I'm not a staunch partisan; I don't have an interest in shielding Republicans from criticism and casting Democrats in a bad light. But, by the same token, I'm unprepared to level charges of "hypocrite;" again, because I'm not a staunch partisan. I don't have an interest in shielding Democrats from criticism and casting Republicans in a bad light.

For me, where General Flynn erred was in not being more partisan during his interview with Chuck Todd in September. Had he simply cast the Clinton aides who had requested immunity as probable criminals flat-out, he'd still be facing criticism for following in their footsteps, but he's have an easy defense in the idea that he was impugning the motives of the specific people he was talking about. Because that's likely what he was intending. I somehow doubt that General Flynn honestly believed that the American justice system was 100% witch hunt-free until the day he decided that asking for immunity in exchange for testimony was a good idea.

After all, this is the nature of partisanship. If I'm talking to a die-hard Republican, I'm not at all surprised when they insinuate, or even flat-out declare, that Democrats are dishonest by simple virtue of them being Democrats. Likewise for Democrats. Of course, any investigation mounted by Democrats that target's Republicans is simply a political which hunt and power play. Of course, any Republican operative who requests immunity from prosecution is looking to avoid jail time for crimes they knowingly committed. When speaking to someone whose worldview, and perhaps more importantly, moral compass, is centered around their partisan/tribal affiliation, why would one expect anything different?

Our problem with partisanship isn't that many of us are active partisans. It's that many active partisans openly look down on active partisanship, and so seek to present themselves as neutral, objective, players. And they do this despite the fact that it fools no one. In a sense, we're all partisans, in the sense that we have biases. If you've read more than two or three of my Politics posts, my biases should be fairly apparent to you by now. And if there were a political party that directly aligned with my biases, I'd likely be a fairly partisan supporter, and have to constantly be on my guard against reserving the presumption of good intent exclusively to fellow party members. So, in that regard, I'm non-partisan in the American system only in the fact that neither of the two major parties particularly suits me. I'd like to think that I'd escape groupthink enough to only believe in my party, right or wrong, as opposed to my party is always right, but I don't know that I'd bet on that.

Because in the end, there's no profit in being even-handed about these things. A Republican who disputes that there's a witch hunt or a Democrat who says that General Flynn is simply playing the game as it played won't earn themselves anything with the people who matter. Their co-partisans will likely resent the party's reputation being undermined, and counter-partisans might be happy to point to their statements as proof of the other side's dishonesty, but that's different than an embrace at the ballot box.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Knowledge Based

Which is better: A short news story with an increased probability of leaving listeners (especially motivated ones) with misconceptions, or a long new story that people don't take the time to listen to all the way through?

Now, this is somewhat of a leading question, and I suspect you understand what the "correct" answer is. I was listening to Morning Edition on the radio this morning, when a story cane on about geoengineering to reduce global warming. Morning Edition is intended to be "drive time" radio, and so the stories are short. And that brevity can sometimes work against a full understanding of the issue at hand.

This morning there was a story about climate engineering in the service of cooling the planet, and how the researchers involved are weighing federal funding for their research. Whether or not climate engineering is the best way, or even a good way, to combat the overall warming of Earth's atmosphere is certainly open to debate, especially given that it's never been attempted on a large scale. So one can understand the importance of researching the issue. But now that President Trump is in office, backed by a Republican Congress, researchers have become more leery of accepting funding from the federal government.

Many environmentalists are suspicious of efforts to deliberately tinker with the climate. They think just talking about the possibility of cooling the planet will threaten the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

So the last thing [Ted Parson] would want is for this research to be associated with the Trump administration.
Scientists Who Want To Study Climate Engineering Shun Trump
I pulled this particular quote from the story because it points to a particular facet of the climate change debate and its goals. Namely, the issue with carbon. For many people in the fossil fuels business, especially the rank and file workers whose job it is to help extract, process and transport the materials, climate activism seems like a direct attack on them and their livelihoods, hence the rhetoric of a "war on coal." From the environmental activism side of the equation, things look a little different. Workers in the fossil-fuel industry may be being asked to sacrifice their careers in the name of cleaner energy, but that's a means, not an end.

To the uninitiated, given those positions, climate geoengineering seems like a win-win. Energy workers can keep their jobs and the temperature of the atmosphere can be controlled. One can have one's cake and eat it, too. For climate scientists to appear to back away from an idea they saw as promising a year ago, simply because the current administration is more committed to fossil fuel industry employment than the previous one seems to undercut the idea that the problem is the effects of fossil fuels, and not the fossil fuels themselves.

Here is another quote, this one not taken from the radio piece, but from the accompanying article on NPRs website:
"I am more comfortable," [David] Keith[, a climate scientist at Harvard University] said, "taking money from clearly environmentally aligned philanthropies or philanthropists than I am taking money from the administration."
For someone who sees money as money, something that spends the same no matter where it comes from (or who writes the check), this statement could easily stoke their suspicions that climate scientists have an agenda, and that they are being less than honest about their findings. Why, after all, should money from a Clinton administration or "clearly environmentally aligned philanthropies or philanthropists" be any better than money from a Trump administration? It doesn't require a particularly suspicious mindset to suspect that climate scientists are more comfortable taking money from those they agree with ideologically, because they'd be more likely to accept ideologically-driven results.

All of this is not, I suspect, the intended takeaway from this piece. But if you know little to nothing about climate engineering initiatives other than you heard/read in this story, it could easily be the message you're left with, especially if you already think that something's not on the up-and-up. On the other hand, the alternative may not be workable. Giving an audience a working primer on the scientific concerns about climate engineering and then discussing climate scientists concerns about the current administration is a tall order of a drive-time news story with a three minute running time. I'm a fairly regular NPR listener (whenever I'm commuting) and I'm somewhat up on the debate over climate engineering. But NPR, and media outlets in general, can't count on their audiences always knowing the greater context. And it does their audience a disservice to leave it out.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stranger Danger 2.0

Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Moslem.
Donald Trump is agent for Russia.
Micah White is a Satanist.

Or, perhaps more simply, each of these people is a Dangerous Other in the eyes of those who oppose their politics. So why not focus on their politics? In an intensely partisan environment, it isn't very difficult to find some policy prescription that a candidate that is vulnerable to being described as Wrong For America, or whatever jurisdiction that they hope to represent or manage. In a world where solutions are rare and trade-offs are common, most policies will come at a cost to someone - those costs being the necessary trade-offs for the benefits proposed - and people's Loss Aversion tends to prime their sensitivity to those costs, making them easy targets for mobilization to scuttle the entire enterprise.

Part of it, I think, is related to the idea of Lovely Awful Things - the seductive nature of Bad Ideas that makes them attractive to people other than ourselves. The injection of ad hominems into the mix is designed to inoculate people against Wrong Thinking by casting the source of those thoughts as Evil.

But I also think that this phenomenon grows out of a focus on Stranger Danger. Although Stranger Danger is perhaps most accurately defined as the conceptual framework that we've built around the idea of the threat to children posed by adults they don't know, I think that we can also broaden the term to encompass the idea that people we don't know who don't signal shared virtues with us are dangerous, in no small part because they seek to advance their own special interests at our expense.

In this sense, the focus of Birtherism is a way of blunting the rhetorical skill of President Obama and the accusations that President Trump is intended to undermine the idea that he's simply another partisan. Likewise, but on a much smaller scale, labeling Micah White a Satanist is mean to counter his for-the-common-man bona fides. Just like an adult unknown to a child offers sweets as a lure, politicians from the other side of a political divide offer reasonable-sounding policies only as traps for the unwary, and casting them as an evil person aligned with an outsider enemy allows for ad hominem attacks on them without appearing to be openly partisan. The non-partisan may be repelled by an attack on someone for their partisan affiliation, but calling them out as a Dangerous Other allows that unacceptable prejudice to be cloaked in an tolerated one.

In 1992, I turned 24, after a childhood in which Stranger Danger was starting to become a thing, even if it hadn't yet acquired that name. Stories of predatory adults prowling about for children to victimize seemed to be slowly becoming more an more common. And even though people my age often look at modern parental hysteria with a mix of amusement and concern, it's not as if our own generation didn't indulge in it. And I wonder of part of the pattern of increasing, and intractable, partisanship that seemed to take root as my age cohort came to be of voting age isn't perhaps rooted in the distrust of strangers that was starting to be seen as a virtue when we were still in school. Part of that distrust was buttressed by the speculative things that were attributed to unfamiliar adults, things that, as time went on, morphed from unsupported suppositions to presumed truths, each becoming a justification for shedding the presumptions of innocence and good intent.

Of course, I'm speculating here. I don't have any evidence one way or another, and correlation does not imply causality. But part of me hopes that there's something there, for no other reason than it offers a visible, if not easy, path to begin to undo some of the divides that we've built between ourselves.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

And the Law Won

Instead of changing in the couple’s favor, the laws evolved to make her husband more vulnerable to deportation, a development the Beristains never expected. She told the Tribune that Trump’s deportation measures — the one’s she thought her family would be exempt from — are harming “regular people.”

“I understand when you’re a criminal and you do bad things, you shouldn’t be in the country,” Helen told the CBS TV affiliate WSBT. “But when you’re a good citizen and you support and you help and you pay taxes and you give jobs to people, you should be able to stay.”
Trump supporter thought president would only deport ‘bad hombres.’ Instead, her husband is being deported.
Helen Beristain has already received a lot of criticism over this situation, from both the Left and the Right. (Of course, they are attacking her for different reasons, but neither side seems inclined to hold their fire.) So I'm not intending this post to be a direct criticism of her, myself. Rather, I'd like to point to an aspect of this situation that I find instructional.

Roberto Beristain, for all that he might be a wonderful person is, by definition, not a good citizen. And that's because he's in the United States illegally. And there was nothing in President Trump's rhetoric, back when he was still Candidate Trump, that pointed to the idea that simply because Mr. Beristain was a good person - that he supported and he helped and he paid taxes and he gave jobs to people - that he would be converted into someone who is in the country legally.
Helen Beristain, his wife, says she supported President Trump but feels his policies shouldn’t apply to her husband because he owns a business and pays taxes.
Trump Supporter’s Husband Faces Deportation
While this is sometimes the way that laws work, when we refer to "the Rule of Law," this generally isn't what we have in mind. The Washington Post headline says that Mrs. Beristain believed that President Trump would only deport "bad hombres." And while it's an understandable sentiment, it points to a fundamental understanding of the nature and the purpose of laws.

Now, I'm not going to claim to be an expert on immigration. That's a body of law that, like many of them, takes quite a bit of time and effort to really understand. But, to the best of my knowledge, the United States does not have a policy that accepts all potential immigrants, with the exception of who are criminals or have been adjudged to have done "bad things." Rather, one has to apply for entry and be accepted. The original intent behind the United States' immigration policies may or may not be valid, depending on how one views the nation's motives when they were first enacted or how strong a position one takes on the idea that people should have unfettered rights to move about in the service of bettering themselves. But even if we ascribe a desire to apply a filter to would-be Americans, and the rules are designed to let in the good, and keep out the bad, there is a process by which the government determines who should be allowed to stay, and who should have to return to their home nation. And it's not based on the personal sentiments of private citizens, whether they be immigration activists, low wage employers or the spouses of those who didn't make the cut.

Generally speaking, the purpose of law is to be a weapon against people who behave in ways that we find to be unacceptable. In order to live in communities, human beings have evolved the capacity to create and manage remarkably complex series of rules and strictures that govern personal behavior and mandate sanctions for violations. But part of what allows rules to work is that they have to be (reasonably) consistent, and in a society like ours, where the body of law is simply too large for any one person to commit all it to memory, it has to be applied in accordance with how it is recorded.

The problem that many people had with President Obama's actions on immigration was that it didn't square with their personal desires on how the law should be applied. For critics on the Left, the President's stepped up enforcement actions were an affront to their ideas that people who were seeking better lives should be allowed to do so without interference. For critics on the Right, the loopholes that the President opened in the rules were proof that he wasn't serious about enforcing laws that they saw as essential for the security of the nation. But both sides seemed completely disinterested in examining the purpose and the wording of the laws under consideration and asking it were time for changes. My personal understanding of the reason for this is that it allows both sides to retain laws on the books for the purpose of being weapons against those they don't like - a broadly-written law that is ignored when convenient can be just as easily recalled for convenience. But that's likely an overly cynical way of looking at it. Rather, I think that most people are like Mrs. Beristain - they believe that the intent of a given law roughly matches what they would intend with it - in this case that the objectively criminal and the subjectively bad would be barred from entering the country, and we would simply look the other way for the "good" immigrants. (And despite the fact that "good" and "bad" are perhaps the most subjective determinations that we ever make, that people would generally agree on who belongs in which category.) But in the end, that creates a legal structure that lends itself to either being arbitrary or to being sectarian and prejudicial; and American history is rife with heartbreaking stories of how that wound up allowing the law to become a cover for abuse.

In a nation divided by competing political and moral ideologies, a body of law that is to everyone's liking is probably beyond our ability to put into place. But that doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to cultivate a high-level understanding what our currently laws are and understand what provisions are encoded into them, and what informal and unwritten modifications have come about as a result of custom, resources or simple desire. And if we understand the law as it is practiced to be superior to the law as it is written, lobby intentionally for those changes, rather than simply assuming that they will always stand.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I never knew that flowers could be unkempt.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Trolls in the Hoods

One such post is an article on white supremacist website, The Daily Stormer. "How to be a Ni**** on Twitter" breaks down methods for creating a fake account in order to take "revenge on Twitter" for banning Andrew Auernheimer's white supremacist ads and for blocking Jared Wyand's account for anti-Semitic tweets. The secondary goal, the article notes, is to "create a state of chaos on twitter, among the black twitter population, by sowing distrust and suspicion, causing blacks to panic."
The Emergence Of The White Troll Behind A Black Face
I don't use Twitter. I've never had the time to look into it, and I have enough random online accounts that I don't use to begin with. So I don't have any insight into how Twitter society, even the Black Twitter society works. But I have to admit to being dubious about the idea that a bunch of trolls pretending to be Black people on Twitter could somehow manage to spark "panic" among actual Black people on Twitter. How does Black Twitter interact with the site that a disruption to it would cause "panic?" I understand how social media has risen from online yearbooks to become a central part of many people's lives over the past decade and a half, but it seems strange to believe that simply being unable to trust the someone who claims to be a given ethnicity is actually that ethnicity seems like a flimsy reason for fear.
Some of the steps to creating a fake account include pretending to know people they might be related to, calling people out on their drug dealing activities, and accusing them of being Neo-Nazis using fake accounts. This way, Aglin writes, "Blacks will then accuse each other of having fake accounts and start reporting each other."
Given that everyone understands, or should understand, that on the Internet, no-one knows you're a dog, it seems optimistic to the point of derangement to think that a few well-placed trolls could turn an entire online community, especially one that comprises millions of people, into effectively a circular firing squad.

Having some difficulty understanding how anyone could possibly believe that such a hare-brained scheme could work, I'm tempted to dismiss the whole thing as a parody, and chalk its newsworthiness up to Poe's Law. Sometimes, it's difficult to tell a genuine idiot from someone who's simply pretending to be one on the Internet. (Of course, given the generally low opinion that many people have of White Supremacists, it may be easy to believe that they'd hatch schemes that come across as obviously broken.)

In my own activities online, I have encountered any number of people who make assertions about themselves that I can't verify. Generally, speaking, I don't pay much attention to these things. When people post self-portraits of themselves, I typically assume that they are honest pictures, and when they make statements about what's going on in their lives, I typically assume that they're accurate descriptions. But I don't need them to be. I don't base my comfort and safety on the World Wide Web on the idea that people that I've otherwise never met, and only "know" from online interactions are who they portray themselves as being. If I really need to speak to a known quality, I simply connect directly with one of the people that I have enough of an offline relationship with to be comfortable speaking to. Were some noticeable fraction of the others to turn out to be engaged in elaborate subterfuge, I'd simply drop them. Calmly.

The fake account advice proffered up by The Daily Stormer seems to be based on a parody of a minority online community, a group of people who are frightened and insecure enough to require the comforting presence of people superficially like themselves, trusting enough to believe that anyone who presents as like them must actually be like them and naive enough be easily manipulated by literal strangers. In the case of Black people specifically, it also seems to be predicated on a sort of group subterfuge; a pretense of respectability that people engage in between drug deals. And in that sense it comes across as a plan to trap elephants using their fear of mice.

Like I said, White Supremacists are an unpopular bunch, and perhaps this is what makes it seem reasonable that they would think such a vapid scheme is workable. But from my perspective, I suspect that someone's having a good laugh at NPR's expense right now.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Opposites Detract

One day, people will stop using moral/ethical terms, such as "right/wrong" and "good/evil" when describing their emotions about certain people - how likeable, how trustworthy or how safe they understand someone to be.

Of course, that will be the day after the final extinction of humanity...

I've always wondered about the habit that people have of predicating someone's moral or ethical opinion of someone's entire interior life on a single data point. "This person supports certain people, so they're unacceptable as an acquaintance" or "This person is okay with a certain action, so they're completely without scruples." These have always struck me as a form of personal Purity test, and what I will admit confuses me about them is how unacceptable they are to admit to, given how common they are.

I can't manage a day without someone loudly proclaiming how this one singular (usually vague) action that some or another (usually nameless) person has said or done means that they should be cast down into the fires and how anyone who disagrees should uncircle/unfriend/unfollow them *this instant*. And nine times out of ten, my first thought is, "Given that I have no idea what the crack you're going on about, I can't understand how to make this information actionable." Usually followed up by the sinking feeling that I'm going to regret ever having encountered them in the first place.

Now, to be sure, I'm a moral noncognitivist (Whew! Say that three times fast!) which is really just a five-dollar word for the idea that what people consider moral and ethical truths are a form of behavior preferences, rather than any sort of objective statement about the world. In other words, when someone says, "Taking candy from a baby is wrong," what I understand that to mean in the broader context is "I disapprove of taking candy from a baby," because there is nothing intrinsic to either candy or babies that creates an objective prohibition against separating the two. And while I can take that disapproval seriously, and support acting on that disapproval - in the end, it's just personal disapproval, and if someone else (say, a dentist) approves of taking candy from a baby, what we have is a difference of opinion rather than competing understandings of the objective nature of the universe.

But even setting that aside, going all the way to a description of someone's ethical framework based on whether they support this artist or disagree with that law seems like a tremendous, and unwarranted, leap. Especially because we tend to use such leaps to avoid simply saying: "I prefer to associate with people who openly share all of my preferences when it comes to certain activities." Because for some reason that seems more narrow-minded and partisan that making wild presumptions about people in order to justify a preference to not associate with them. I don't understand it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Border Stories

After one too many jarring electric wake-up calls, I picked up a clock radio, and now I am reminded of the loathsome fact that I need to be out of bed at far too early for my tastes by the disembodied voices of NPR correspondents and their subjects. And often, as part of that morning routine, there is a story about immigration, typically illegal immigration from Latin America.

Immigration stories on NPR have a certain sameness about them after a while, as they fall into a predictable pattern, being sympathetic treatments of the migrants and their plight, while making sure they talked to a token cranky Gringo (who dutifully makes the expected complaints).

While I appreciate the newsworthiness of these stories, they do become stale after the fiftieth time you hear about some hardworking Mexican being forcibly returned to a life of poverty, some Guatemalan parents being shipped back home while their children look for a place to stay, or some small-town bumpkin calling for the government to round 'em all up an' ship 'em all back to where they came from, usually in the comically vain hope that this will mean that the local unpaid labor market will suddenly raise wages to upper-middle-class levels again. But more importantly, they seek to boil the debate down to the effects on a set of carefully chosen individuals, who are intended to represent much larger groups of people. Groups that are large enough that they're not as monolithic as they're made out to be.

What I'd like to see are reasoned debates on some of the central issues surrounding immigration. One that's touched on from time to time is the human rights issue. Seems reasonable enough. It seems needlessly cruel to say that people in marginal areas have no right to go a wherever they can find opportunities. But there's always at least one flip side, and in this case, that's the right of a nation to control its borders, and decide who its willing to let in, and who stays out. These two concepts are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. So deciding which one of these we consider to be more important to us is going to be a major part of a broader plan going forward. Surely, news outlets can dig up specialists on human rights and national sovereignty to both depersonalize and contextualize that aspect of the debate for us?

Will it solve the whole debate for us? Of course not. There are other considerations to be taken into account, and it would be good to know those as well. But we'll have more to go on than we have now, and can start to see the bigger picture.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


“Well, I’m a huge student of American history and I recognize this is one of those times where there’s great polarization between the two parties. And frankly the ideas for which the parties are working are really at opposite ends of the spectrum. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of successful compromise. Hence you have the deadlock we have today.”

“Well, the fact is, you never compromise on principles. If people on the far left they have a principle to stand by, they should never compromise, those of us on the right should not either. [...] What has motivated many people to get out and work for us and we are at that point where one side or the other has to win this argument. One side or the other will dominate.”
Richard Mourdock former Treasurer of Indiana
Mr. Mourdock's comments came during an interview with Soledad O’Brien while he was running for the Indiana United States Senate seat formerly held by Republican Senator Richard Lugar, whom Mr. Mourdock had defeated in the primary, in part by casting him as too moderate and too willing to work with President Obama. I was reminded of the interview after a conversation with a politically-minded acquaintance in which I made my standard argument about the importance of not demonizing the other side when you talk to them. His response was basically, that he never intended to speak to them, only about them, and that his goal was to rally the rest of the nation against them.

And that left me with a question. Is a lasting victory for one side or the other even possible? Can either America's political Left or Right actually manage to convince enough people to follow them to create the sort of "permanent majority" that Karl Rove once envisioned without compromising their principles enough to appeal to a large swath of people who don't normally vote? (And can they do so in such a way that doesn't motivate others of that same group to join the opposition?)

There's nothing about the nature of the political universe that prevents it. So the question really becomes: If circumstances don't line up in such a way as to bring down their opposition, are the political parties willing to do what it takes, whatever that is, to secure long-lasting power for themselves? Right now, the answer seems to be "no," if only because the parties, while unified in what they don't want, and not unified enough in what they do want to be able to marshal all of their resources into a dominance project. Which may be a profound disappointment to staunch partisans on all sides, but is likely a boon for the rest of us. A political party driven by a sense that their principles are both morally right and the last line of defense again a willfully perverse opposition, if given an unassailable majority for even a short time, could restructure the political landscape to give themselves formidable structural advantages that could last decades. Republican control of redistricting in several states meant that in 2012, despite narrowly losing the overall popular vote in House of Representatives races, they were able to hold on to control of the chamber.

Richard Mourdock envisioned a world in which the American public effectively exiled one party or the other to the political wilderness, making them the opposition in name only. He saw the electorate as being given a choice and making it. It's a vision that's unlikely to play out anytime soon, given the way the public is divided and the political parties fail to effectively cross those divides. But people will continue to look for ways to end the back and forth. Something tells me we're better off if no-one ever manages it.

Monday, March 13, 2017


Rain, it turns out, is not a good subject for photography, because unlike snow, you can't really catch it in flight. And the ripples in puddles always look better when they're in motion.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Return to Gray

Reasons why Aaron isn't Black Enough, number 23,695.

I saw this, and my first reaction was to burst out laughing. Fortunately, I have my own office where I work, so I didn't bother my coworkers. I think that this is funny and clever. And yes, I understand why some people are offended by it. But no, I don't think that it's objectively bad. I'm not going to be "that guy," the one who runs around telling people to "lighten up," or "have a sense of humor." Because you can consider this to be the worst thing ever done to beer and still be the life of the party. But I do become kind of annoyed when things like this are cast as being about race and ethnicity, rather than about the individuals involved. What we find offensive, or not, is about who we are as people, and not the color of our skin. I happen to take Black Lives Matter seriously, and still find this to uproariously funny. It's hard for me to avoid chuckling as I type this.

But on the flip side, I understand that there are people who feel that the joke is on them, and they're being undermined. That the dead are being mocked, and that centuries of pain are being ignored. I don't know whether or not that was the intent. Honestly, I don't know if it matters. I became at peace with the idea that some percentage of humanity simply wasn't going to like me, for some reason or another, on sight some time ago. I find I enjoy life more that way.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Once and Forever

I was looking to do a little reading outside of my usual web haunts, so I wandered over to the National Review, where I found a column by George Will - I'd link to it, but there seems to have been some browser shenanigans going on (it kept opening new tabs to strange websites), so I'm uncertain of the page's safety.

In any event, Mr. Will, who I'd come to enjoy reading in the past was holding forth on the idea that eugenics was once a Progressive idea - in the 1920s to 1940s, and that modern progressives should know this. But he never answered the question of "Why?" Who cares what ideas were attached to modern political labels 80 to 100 years ago? Why must the current heirs to a political term be held responsible for a past that was dead an buried before they were born?

It was a disappointing read, because it seemed more outwardly partisan, and less sharp, than I remembered Mr. Will being when I'd read his columns in local Seattle newspapers. The idea that modern Democrats and Progressives are somehow tainted by the actions of the pre-civil rights era or the period before the Second World War has been floating around for years, and seems to be born of little more than a desire to insinuate that people who use the same labels as bad people in the past must be (perhaps secretly) bad people themselves.

Pretending that the world never changes is a poor mode of Conservatism, in my opinion. Conservatives may extol the virtues of the past, and desire to retain as many of the its practices and traditions as they can manage, and I can understand that impulse, even when I feel that it leads to a certain level of historical blindness. But when that blindness extends to the insinuation that the American political landscape - and the labels we use to describe it - haven't changed in a century, it becomes a handicap we can do without.

Monday, March 6, 2017

America, the Incredible

For some people, I suppose, the fundamental problem with the idea of "My country, right or wrong," is that it presupposes that one's country can be wrong.

And that's the feeling that I took away from this GQ article about a speech by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.

That's what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity—there were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships who worked even longer, even harder, for less. But they, too, had a dream, that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.
Now, I wasn't around when slavery, let alone the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was still practiced in the United States. So I can't really speak to the heart of Secretary Carson's words, which are that an American spirit of optimism was so all-pervading that even after being abducted from their homes and surviving a horrific passage across an ocean to become the literal property of other people, that African slaves understood that they were in a land of boundless opportunity - if not for them, then for their descendants. But suffice it to say that it strikes me as being iffy, at best.

In the end, the issue with this statement isn't it's historical iffiness. After all, there's no way to go back and survey the slave population and ask them if being in a nation so far from home had filled them with a hope for the future that they hadn't possessed beforehand. It's that there are ways of expressing that aspect of American Exceptionalism that won't come across as anywhere near so bizarre, or beholden to an idea that the United States could never do any wrong. The first step to uniting a group of people is speaking to all of them; and doing so in a way that's understood to be speaking to all of them. Speaking of the past in a way that says that, by today's standards, it has nothing to atone for doesn't do that. Not because there are people who are simply so invested in the wrongness of the United States that they demand self-flagellation as the price of their allegiance, but because there's just something... off about the idea that any human institution can somehow manage to completely transcend the failings and missteps of humanity.

Secretary Carson seeks to evoke an image of a perfect America. One that rarely managed any harm even in the worst aspects of its history. One that always projected its promise to everyone, no matter how lowly their station - or the effort expended to keep them there. And it's a nice image. But it can't ring universally true, and so it comes across as partisan. And therein lies the problem.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Marriage Material

Anecdotes are a handy way of personalizing a news story - a way of taking what otherwise might be a dry subject and putting a "human face" on it. Such as the following, from a story about how the loss of manufacturing jobs in Middle America is depressing marriage rates there:

After all, women are more independent than they used to be because they have more job opportunities than they once did. They can make the choice not to marry and still have children, and not face as much stigma as they once did.

This group includes Olivia Alfano, a 29-year-old single mother living in Evansville, Indiana, where she works as a waitress at Red Lobster. The money is pretty good, she told me: She drives a BMW and was able to buy a house last year. Alfano now wants to go into management, which she thinks will give her more security in the long run. When I asked her why she hadn’t married, she told me, “I haven’t run into someone I would consider doing that with.”

Of course, Alfano still has obstacles: for instance, finding childcare while she’s at work and getting good health care for her family (she doesn’t work enough hours to qualify for Red Lobster’s plan). But three decades ago, a woman like Alfano would have needed a partner to be able to have children, or else faced social stigma and economic hardship. Today, her potential partners don’t have the opportunity for good, stable employment that they once did. They’re struggling, while Alfano makes a life on her own.
Alana Semuels "When Factory Jobs Vanish, Men Become Less Desirable Partners"
The focus of the story is the impact of the loss of manufacturing work on male “marriageablity” defined in the article as a) not being an alcoholic/addict and b) being employed. (No, really - that's the way the study's authors, David Autor, Gordon Hanson and David Dorn, define it.) And the anecdote above, that serves as a conclusion, is presented as a way of saying that when sisters can do it for themselves, they don't need men to provide for them.

But that anecdote stood out for me. The money at Red Lobster must be really good to allow for that sort of lifestyle on less than full-time. So I did some digging for a few of the details that the story left out. Given that she doesn't qualify for the employee health-care plan Ms. Alfano has to be working a maximum of 30 hours a week. It strikes me as difficult to buy a home and a BMW on that salary, but I live just outside of Seattle, where the cost of living is fairly high. Evansville, Indiana, however, is a completely different story. Looking up median home prices there, checking the local BMW dealer's used case selection and making some semi-educated guesses about the costs of property taxes and homeowner's insurance, I guesstimate that Ms. Alfano needs to make somewhere in the area of $12 to $13 an hour to buy a home just shy of the median price (with a 20% down payment) and drive a decent used BMW - something with enough miles on it that it wouldn't cost her as much as the house did.

With that out of the way, it seemed to me that the story was somewhat misdirected. Which  brings me to an anecdote of my own. I happen to know a single mother here who is doing pretty well for herself. She's a lot older than Ms. Alfano, but she owns a house, has a couple of nice car and raises two children on her salary. She also happens to make about six or so times what Ms. Alfano does, to allow her to live this lifestyle here in the Seattle area. What both of these women have in common is that they're not locked out of jobs that allow them to be self-sufficient in the areas in which they live. The (dire) economic hardship of the past is more or less gone, at least for them.

And given that, to a certain degree, the pressure to be married fades. In The Lobster one of the points that the society in which the movie was set took (sometimes comical) pains to drive home is that being alone was dangerous, whether it was choking on a stray bit of food or being sexually assaulted in the street, being single carried serious risks that having a partner would mitigate or even eliminate. And that leads to another facet of male “marriageablity” that the article didn't really touch on: need.

The model of family that many segments of society have come to see as outmoded, if not necessarily obsolete, can be said to have viewed being a wife as a prerequisite to being a mother, but not openly admitting to that. Instead, being a wife was viewed as just as aspirational as motherhood. But in a society that tended to stand between women and the jobs they needed to be self-sufficient or "breadwinners" for a family, you can see marriage as a stepping stone to motherhood, due to the financial aspects of the arrangement.
When young women become pregnant unintentionally, they have to decide whether to have the baby and whether to marry the father or not, said Autor. That evaluation becomes more fraught when the man doesn’t have a good job. Marriage to such men can be risky: They may not contribute very much income, but they could factor into family decisions. “You don’t want to marry a man who is in all likelihood not economically viable, because it’s not a free lunch,” Autor said.
What this says to me is that, possibly, a lot of these men were never desirable partners - they were simply necessary partners, because the task at hand, having a baby and raising it, was simply too much for many women to manage alone. Because from a purely financial standpoint, a man who makes enough money to support themselves (as an individual) and contribute to the overall finances of the couple is a net positive.

The general gist of the article is that if women like Ms. Alfano could meet someone who had a $25 an hour factory job (like the kind that Rexnord is moving from Indiana to Mexico), she'd happily let that man into her family - and family decision-making process - in exchange for the extra money he'd bring to the table. But outside of the fact that she has challenges with childcare and doesn't work enough hours to qualify for company-sponsored healthcare, she's doing alright for herself, because she managed to find a job that enables her to be reasonably self-sufficient in the place where she lives. Now, that self-sufficiency may be tenuous, but it's lasting well enough. After all, of Ms. Alfano were that hard up for a partner, one would suspect that there's at least one single Red Lobster waiter in the general vicinity who's marriage minded. Sure someone higher on the socioeconomic ladder might be better, but someone making as much as she does would still be an overall boon, especially given the efficiencies that could be realized - after all mortgage payments aren't calculated on the basis of the number of people who reside at the address.

There's a lot to be said for wanting what you need. But in a case like that, when the need goes away, the want goes with it. Maybe it's time to understand that there should be a new, or maybe simply broader, understanding of what it means to be marriagable in a society where men looking for partners have to compete with a status quo that's becoming increasingly livable.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Material Interests

It’s not that working blacks and working whites are unable to see the things they have in common; it’s that the material interests of the former—freedom from unfair scrutiny, unfair detention, and unjust killings—are in direct tension with the identity politics of the latter (as represented in the sketch by the Trump hat).
Jamelle Bouie "The Most Astute Analysis of American Politics in 2016? SNL's 'Black Jeopardy!' Sketch."
But I think that it's also important to remember that there is a flip side to this, that material interests of working Whites-in the form finding lawbreakers, incapacitating them from further criminality and neutralizing immanent threats to public safety-are in direct tension with the identity politics of working Blacks (as perhaps represented by a Black Lives Matter shirt).

And there will be a broader conflict than simply between the material interests of one side and the identity politics of the other - material interests vs. material interests and identity politics vs. identity politics will also be in play. It's worth mentioning that factors that are working against the material interests of Black Americans are not driven by White Americans' identification as White. Instead, they are driven by the idea that there are not enough resources to meet both sets of needs, and, to an extent the understanding that this lack of resources means that as long as the "other side" is having their needs met, that one's own needs, and rights, are being deliberately shortchanged. The comfort of one is the intentional infliction of the other.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Got to Be Real

Image credit: Paul Garber/WFDD
It's become popular to complain about "sowing division" in the United States. Accusing people of focusing on, or even simply bringing up, topics or concepts that encourage Americans to retreat into their mutually incompatible identities is something of a cardinal sin in many areas of American discourse. What that misses is the idea that Americans will separate themselves into groups with hardly any prompting, thank you very much. And this billboard, which was put up outside of Winston-Salem North Carolina is a handy demonstrator as to how it works.

One of the effects that I suspect that Judeo-Christianity has had on the United States is twofold - an understanding that there is a Truth out there that can be found, and the idea that deviation from that revealed Truth is a form of wrongdoing. And I think that this leads people to look at this billboard and presume that a man who does not provide for a family or a woman who does not appreciate being provided for as not "real," as in somehow less than genuine men or women. Now, that's not to say that this isn't an attack on people who don't follow "traditional" gender roles. But the billboard itself says nothing of the sort. Any insult to other ways of life that one takes away from this are, at least at this point, in the reading that one brings to it, rather than in the text itself.

And maybe that's part of the problem that we have as a nation, given the fact that we're not truly a unified society. We've become so accustomed to attacking one another, and defending ourselves against attacks by others, that we see attacks everywhere. It's the same thing with Black Lives Matter. While nothing in that slogan says anything to the effect that the lives of other people are any less meaningful, there are a fair number of people who read it as Only Black Lives Matter.

A single billboard, no matter how large, is too small a canvas to capture any significant amount of the nuance of the human condition. I am willing to let the men who provide, and the women who appreciate it, into Realdom, along with just about anyone else who asks. (Although I will admit that I've raised an eyebrow at a few of the petitioners from time to time.) It may be overly generous of me to presume that they are willing to share that distinction with the single and otherwise independent, but I keep one thing in mind - they can't stop me. If I choose to allow that a man who is, for whatever reason, unwilling or unable to provide for a family, or even for himself, is just as real as they are, any disagreement on their part is their problem, not mine. Likewise, if I choose to allow that a woman who refuses to allow anyone to provide for her and hers is as real as they, their disagreement will not deter me. Declaring something Truthful does not make every other thing a Falsehood by default.

Besides, despite the suspicions of some detractors that the sponsors of this sign wish to return the United States to a black and white Leave it to Beaver society, progress is seldom that fragile. Especially in a case like this, where I suspect that any competent historian would tell you that things were never as simple as seven words on a billboard would make them out to be. Even when people still sought the lifestyles of the rich and Brady, the idea that none of that society was built on the backs of miserly bachelors or self-reliant women was more delusion than history.

So let them place billboards wherever they may and project whatever message they wish. If they hope to turn back the clock, they'll likely find it more difficult than they, or their more fearful critics, think. And if they only wish to have others see them as just as genuine as anyone else, reality has room for a few more, I think.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Bad Advice

One of the things about the American political system that we can do without is its tendency towards bitterness, anger and vindictiveness. Being wrong-thinking brings suffering, and that suffering is deserved so long as the wrong thinking persists. When I first read the above, what struck me is that all of it is bad advice, to the last word.

The "structure of power" that allows an employer's choice to relocate a job is called technology. From ships to planes to high-speed internet, advancing technology has had the effect of making the world effectively smaller, meaning that more and more people around the world are now effectively in close enough proximity to be able to do work for otherwise local employers. The container ship has sailed, and it's not coming back. The belief it was created solely by the greed of "the 1%" is a fallacy. Even if we stop working on new and better ways to directly give the global workforce access to the markets of first and second world nations, the fact of the matter is that other technologies will be pressed into service. Autonomous vehicles, faster and faster internet infrastructure, better education - all of these things make it easier to move good and services around the globe. And they aren't going to go away.

The "structure of power" that incents an employer's choice to relocate a job is called economics. The fact of the matter is that as goods and services are produced in a globalized marketplace, some people will be willing to do work for a lower standard of living than others, because it's still a step up from where they came from. Yes, there governments, whether they be in other states, or India or the United Kingdom, that have found a way to put a thumb on the scale - taxing their own citizens to attract jobs away from other people. But even in the absence of that, for some people, their comparative advantage is that they feel themselves to be living like kings on wages that would beggar someone else. Their poverty, relative or absolute, is an advantage, and one that they exploit in order to destroy it. We live in a society in which we equate affluence with possessions. And so the less expensive possessions are, the better off we see ourselves. According to Walmart "We save people money so they can live better," through the more efficient transfer of wealth from liquidity into goods and services. And everyone is on board with this. While the Michael Chertoff claim that to have Americans pick apples, we'd have to pay $16 each for them may be overstated, we are, as a nation, price sensitive. And on the one hand, this leads to all sorts of strangeness, it also leads to straightforward cost-cutting. And if moving a job to Mexico, India or Botswana to offer a wage that's one-eighth of what an American would make means that some fraction of the retail price can either be shaved or pocketed (or a bit of both), then that's what's going to happen.
Instead of attacking your fellow worker, the one who's willing to work for less than a legal wage to feed his family, maybe you should go after the technological advances and economic forces that allow him to have the opportunity to take that work.
"There," as the saying goes. "I fixed it for you."

The fact of the matter is that we live in a society that has come to depend on the existence of poverty to function as it does. And while I understand the point that it does no good to be angry with someone who has taken advantage of a door out of the grinding poverty that they found themselves in, I don't know that looking for ways to chain it shut is any better.

This can all be seen as part of a process of creative destruction. And in such a process, it's always better when the process of creation results in destruction than to have a desperate need for creativity to mitigate against the effects of destruction. And in a lot of ways our problem isn't that the interests of the wealthy and powerful are served by driving destruction - instead it's that their interests are often served by implementing open checks on creativity - and it is this retardation of innovation that leads to the problems that we have today. Not that demand can continue to rise indefinitely in the fact of constant efficiency gains - but when the new industries that would take up the slack in the labor market are stifled, people feel a need to hold on the jobs of the past, jobs that the global poor are learning the skills to perform and are no longer locked out of simply by a lack of proximity.

Whether it coes about as a result of attacking fellow workers, or attempting to undermine the forces that enable them to be workers, it speaks to the fact that our issue is not that one person or another has a job. It's that the system is set up in such a way that only one worker can do well at a time. And part of the issue with a standard of living that is fueled by someone's poverty is that it doesn't care where that poverty lives. It doesn't matter which worker loses out, so long as one of them loses. Certain people have preferences, yes, but the structures of everyday life don't care.

Capital is dearer than labor. This is not due to the structures of power. Its due to the broader way in which we have organized our society. The fact that what separates people is not a disagreement over whether it should change, but how it should be enforced may demonstrate that.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Giving Wisdom

Reading McKay Coppins' piece on Tucker Carlson in the Atlantic, two things stood out for me. One was what made him angry:

“It was the unreasonableness … It’s this assumption—and it’s held by a lot of people I live around—that you’re on God’s side, everyone else is an infidel, and by calling them names you’re doing the Lord’s work. I just don’t think that’s admirable, and I’m not impressed by that.”
The second thing was something he said he'd learned from his father:
“The beginning of wisdom is to know what an asshole you are.”
I wonder if he realizes how the two go hand in hand. I've met a lot of people who stand by the practice of calling other people names. And generally speaking, they don't see that activity as “doing the Lord’s work.” Instead, they see it as imparting wisdom to someone who may not realize that they're being an asshole.

There appear to be a lot of philosophies that work on the idea that to make someone a better person, the first thing that you have to do is tear them down, or otherwise have them hit bottom. And I think that speaks to a lot of people because it allows them to go around telling people what assholes they are - but shields them from the understanding that they, too, might be assholes who just happen to have found a justification for behavior that they find unimpressive in others.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

To Know the Truth

Instinctively by Trump, perhaps strategically by Bannon and others, the Trump moment has promoted the idea that there are no facts, no reality, no authorities, no actual truth. There’s only us and them.
James Fallows ‘With Such a People You Can Then Do What You Please’ The Atlantic.
As much as I like James Fallows, I must wholeheartedly disagree with this conclusion. What the Trump moment, and broader Conservative thought has pushed back against is the idea that if there is a disagreement between "the press" and any other entity or institution as to what the facts, reality, authorities or actual truth are, then it must be the press that has it right. As much as various personalities within and commenters on the media and the press may say that the sole function of the press is to get us to facts, reality, authorities and actual truth, the simple fact that they have one job does not, in and of itself, mean that they are doing it properly or in good faith. To claim otherwise is an appeal to authority that may be wise, but is no less a fallacy for that.

What the Trump moment is instead promoted is that they are honest speakers of the facts, reality, authorities and, yes, actual truth. And that those who say otherwise are at best instinctively biased and at worst, strategically dishonest.
Do you believe that the mainstream media has been too eager to jump to conclusions about rumored stories? Mainstream Media Accountability Survey
Once you postulate that facts, reality, authority and actual truth are real and objective things that can be discovered and known, they become independent of any particular persons or institutions. And if you postulate that these things are self-evident to anyone who cares to look at them, it is easy to conclude that you can judge a person's intellect, observation and/or honesty by how they describe them.

It is a common facet of human nature to believe that "ought" can be just as objective as "is." And that one can, and should, flow from the other. We are no less likely to see what we think the world ought to be like as objective and self-evident as we are to think of our everyday reality that way. And in a society large enough to have major cultural groups operating at cross-purposes (if not direct opposition) to one another, it's easy to see how "us versus them" comes into the picture. If I control the narrative of the past and the present, I can influence what someone thinks the future should be. And we often use the present to dictate to people how to bring about the futures we want. If you see someone's vision of what ought to be as damaging to you and based on certain information about what currently is, sometimes one's first impulse is to dispute what is, rather than question the necessity of the connection. And in a regime where what is, in the form of everyday reality, is thought to be self-evident, disputing someone's account of what is lies only a short step away from questioning, or impugning, their rationality, knowledge and/or morality.

And from there, you have Us, the rational, knowledgeable and moral - and thus ready, willing and able to accurately understand the world around us; and Them, the irrational, ignorant and immoral, who see what they think they see, what they've been told to see or what they want to see in order to justify their wrong-headed, if not dangerous, ideas of what ought to be.

The problem with common conceptions of facts, reality, authorities and actual truth is that we don't often distinguish between the objective and the subjective; but we often link the two. Consider the statement, "It's cold outside today." Now consider the statement, "It's 40° F outside today." Are both of those statements facts? Let's say I make the second statement "It's -20° F outside today." Now are both statements facts? And if 40° isn't cold, but when I go outside it is, can I question my thermometer? These are the sorts of questions that we deal with day after day, as we sort our sensations and perceptions of the world into information and knowledge. Is the legitimacy of a government ever a fact? Can it be linked to vote totals? Is popularity a fact that flows from polling numbers? We know that polls can be wrong. Is "You are (un)safe," a fact?

As I understand the world, things like facts, reality, et cetera are not always truth-apt in the grand scheme of things, but only in regard to human experience. And from that comes the idea that there is no one singular, universal truth. But that is different, very different, from the idea that there no actual truth at all. (Of course, if I wanted to really meta about this whole exercise, I could ask if actual must mean singular and universal...) A worldview that posits that the actual truth must be an agreed upon item, sets us up for a conflict of truth versus lies, rather than the overlapping truths of different experiences. It is a conflict that can never be won, because unless truth only consists of items that are objective, in the sense that they are completely independent of the perceptions of the observer, different people can always honestly assert different truth. And even with objective truth, you still have the issue of incomplete knowledge - just as with blind men and elephants, partial knowledge may be mistaken for the whole.

And so I disagree with the idea that the Trump moment represents an attack on the idea of facts, reality, authorities and actual truth are real. Instead it argues against the idea that these are singular things and/or that only people outside of the moment have access to them. Kellyanne Conway's invocation of "alternative facts" as clumsy as it was becomes the first of those propositions, and the Trump moment's general disdain for media outlets they disagree with becomes the second.

Monday, February 20, 2017


So I came across the following on my social media feed.

Fake news as defined by the left and center:
A news story put out to intentionally deceive, that the author knows is wrong

Fake news as defined by the right:
Any news story that challenges my world view, or that I don't like.

Rather looks like the right is challenged in dealing with unpleasant realities.
Three guesses as to the political leanings of the author...

And it seems to me that this is what the discussion over "fake news" has devolved into - a partisan, and personal, sniping fest over who is more gullible. But that's not what the term was originally coined to describe.

Fake News, as it was encountered during the 2016 election cycle, is a form of advertising scam. I suppose that you could also call it fraud, but I'm unsure of a legal basis for that label. And it is, at heart, a form of clickbait, that, like most clickbait, is designed to take advantage of the way that online advertising is placed and that placement paid for. The goal is to drive pageviews, and thus, advertising revenue. Virality, not deception, is the primary goal.

What makes Fake News fake is not the veracity of the stories themselves, although many of them were made up out of whole cloth, or cobbled together by randomly lifting pieces of other items found on line. The fake aspect of Fake News derives from the fact that many of these sites were designed to look like legitimate, if small and/or local, news outlets. And this was designed to give the stories a certain level of credibility, again, to make them more likely to be shared. If I were to post something here on Nobody In Particular that claimed, due to some obscure 1920s law, that President Trump was guilty of some impeachable offense, it might garner some views. But, as it says on the tin, I'm Nobody In Particular, and few people are likely to take it as anything more than wishful thinking or a thought experiment on my part. But if that same piece were to show up on what people presume to be a reputable news site,, say, they might be more inclined to see it as something worth talking about, even if they were no more inclined to believe that it was accurate.

Given that virality is the goal, even people who click through to the page merely to pass along the URL with an incredulous comment serve the site owner's purposes - views, and the advertising revenue that comes from those views. The World Wide Web is a very big place, virtually speaking, and it's not worth most advertisers' time to verify each and every site where their ad might be seen. If people are going to a particular site, that's where they want to be, and their willingness to pay for the opportunity is what drove Fake News.

Much has been made of the fact that the American Right seemed to be highly susceptible to Fake News. This, in turn, fed a theory that Fake News, and the anti-Clinton animosity that it engendered, is was came between the former Secretary of State and the White House. But it's probably more accurate to say that anti-Clinton (and anti-Obama) animosity, and Republican desperation, that drove the Fake News cycle.
I would wager that this guy had it in for both Mrs. Clinton and President Obama long before he encountered Washington Star News. And note that this piece had generated 3 likes when I took this screenshot, but 36 comments. For everyone who clicked through before saying something, a website operator made a bit more money.
It's likely that as "Presidential Derangement Syndrome" (which is likely better named "Partisan Fear") cycles back to the American Left, we'll start to see a robust trade in Fake News designed to draw them in by appealing to the search for hope. And then it will be the Right's turn to cast their opponents as "reality challenged." And we'll see the same charge that the tern "Fake News" is being used as a cover for closed-mindedness.

People understand that even when the facts are the same, the framing of Who, What, When, Why and How can lead people to different conclusions as to the nature of the world around them.
In that sense, it's worth pointing out that a) people tend to be sensitive to items that they understand are biased (especially when that bias operates to the detriment of themselves or people they like), b) the modern media landscape is littered with items that people can and will seize upon as being biased and c) to the degree that people tend to understand their worldviews as both objective and self-evident, negative biases will often be seen as intentionally perverse. Openly anti-Obama stories from eight years ago weren't characterized as Fake News at the time simply because the term wasn't in widespread use. But I can recall stories from that time that openly questioned the former President's suitability for office that were called out as being hit pieces, rather than items of genuine newsworthiness.

Understanding what Fake News really is, as a concept, independent of the label attached to it, is important because it's not going to go anywhere. As long as there is an online advertising model that pays people for the number of people that view a page where an ad is placed, people will turn to clickbait to draw people in. And playing on the hopes of frightened people has always been an excellent way to do that.

Saturday, February 18, 2017


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Going Without

Today was to be "A Day Without Immigrants." I didn't notice it, personally. Not because I don't work with immigrants, but I'm in the tech sector, and the immigrants I work with on a regular basis are all making salaries in the upper-five to six figures. They're not feeling the heat in the way that restaurant workers and other people lower down on the income ladder might be. Not, to be honest, that it appeared that any of the immigrant-run restaurants I drove by this evening appeared to be closed.

There is a difference between "A Day Without Immigrants" and "A Day Without Immigrants From Latin America Who Are In the United States Illegally." And I don't know that it does anyone any good for those two groups to become conflated in the public consciousness. Immigration policy in the United States is, and will always have to be, based more broadly than the interests of Latin Americans. Programmers, managers and other white-collar workers have different interests than "cooks, dishwashers, busboys, cleaners, carpenters and delivery workers."

I'm typically unimpressed with street protests, mainly because I understand protest to be the last resort of the politically powerless. And when we're talking about those people who are in the country without documentation, they are more or less by definition politically powerless, since they cannot vote or run for elected office. Therefore, they have no way of influencing the system from the "inside." This necessitates that they attempt influence from the outside. And while I understand the goals behind the protests, I don't know that I think the tactics are the best ones.

If we don't produce, if we get deported, and don't show up, what's gonna happen? This country will collapse, because who's gonna do our kinds of jobs? No one.
The problem with this sort of thing (which mirrors the problem I have with "No justice, no peace") is that it is, at it heart, extortionate. And I'm not sure that is a good way of making friends and influencing people. The bluff is unlikely to be called; the United States is a very large nation of people who don't get along all that well in a lot of things - I can't see the nation as a whole saying "Okay. Challenge accepted. Show me what you've got." But even so, threatening people and effectively calling them out as weak strikes me as an unlikely path to convincing the public that they should either continue to tolerate the blind eye that's often turned to immigration or opt for another Reagan-style reset. I also think that it seems likely to alienate people who came to the country legally, who generally speaking, couldn't bluster their way in.

Hostility to immigration tends to be a pocketbook issue, at least in perception. The understanding is that the large pool of immigrant labor lowers wages and leads to job losses for "natives," without doing anything to materially aid the displaced. The fact that one might be able to buy berries at 50% of what they would otherwise cost is slight consolation to someone facing long-term unemployment. The fact of the matter becomes that many Americans are not compared to compete with many of the world's poor people on standard of living. Trinidad Macias may be convinced that most Americans would not do the jobs that immigrant workers perform, but the simple fact is, that to the degree that she's right, it's because the work is poorly paid, and many Americans would be unwilling to sacrifice the America Dream enough to make the math work out. I don't know that rubbing their faces in that will drive the impetus for change.