Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Gotcha! I Think...

The online commentary magazine Slate runs Doonesbury every day as one of their features. On the page, among other things, is a section titled "Say What?" This generally showcases something silly, disagreeable or contradictory that someone has said. The 29th of December features Senator Jim DeMint - a Republican from South Carolina.

"I never wanted to break the president."
-- Sen. Jim DeMint, 12/27/09

"If we're able to stop Obama on this [health care reform], it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."
-- Sen. Jim DeMint, 7/17/09
Gotcha, Senator DeMint! Or... maybe not. It's a pretty damning statement, on the face of things. While it's a safe bet that DeMint does, in fact, want "to break the president" (c'mon, he's a Republican - it's like saying that houseplants want water), it's worth keeping in mind that it for DeMint's August statement to make a liar out of him in December, you have to make an assumption that you can't support simply with the statements given.

DeMint's August statement is simply an understanding of cause and effect - if A, then B. Yes, I know: "But," you're asking, "If DeMint is working to defeat health care reform, which he knows will 'break the president,' doesn't that mean that he wants the president to be broken?" If, and only if, you presume that opposition to health care reform is a means, not an end in itself. If that isn't true, "breaking" President Obama may just as easily be the unwanted consequence of a necessary action. And, of course, if defeating health care reform is an end in itself, then DeMint might simply not care about the consequences. With just the two statement to go on, you can't make that determination. (Personally, I agree with Jacob Weisberg - the Democrats are looking to buy votes with through government expansion, and the Republicans don't see the aided demographic translating into votes for them, and so are out to nix the deal.)

Partisan bickering is becoming the norm in general political discourse these days - that's nothing new. And one of things that goes along with it is an often shocking willingness to believe truly nasty things about the opposition. But I guess I still find it important to convict the guilty, rather than settle for framing them.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Booga, Booga

So today I received a flyer from a group calling itself the "Campaign for Responsible Health Care Reform," exhorting me to call a number NOW to register my displeasure with my congresspeople (Representative and Senators). Of course, why it's responsible for me to start calling people simply because someone sends me a flyer in the mail telling me to do so is left unanswered. It turns out that this "Campaign for Responsible Health Care Reform" is an arm of the United States Chamber of Commerce, and an ideological slant was immediately apparent. It turns out that "Real Reform" is this wonderful thing that brings all sorts of benefits, without costing anyone a dime (and, of course, it comes with no details), while what Congress has in mind is just about increasing costs and cutting services.

It's unfortunate that the flyer didn't arrive in time for Halloween - it would have made for a terrifying decoration all by itself.

Of course, in the political scheme of things, someone at the USCoC should be drawn and quartered. The sort of blatant fear-mongering that this flyer represents is a travesty. People should become involved in their government because they understand that it benefits them to be more involved - not because some group with an agenda of its own is spreading fear around like manure. But fear works, and so we're going to see more of it, coming to a mailbox near you.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Innocence vs. the Constitution

The potential execution of an innocent man by Texas (Are you surprised?) in 2004 is getting a lot of play all over the place, sparked by an article by David Grann in The New Yorker. Everyone, from the blogosphere, to web magazines, is getting into the act, and many, if not most are having trouble with the system's seeming lack of concern about the Cameron Todd Willingham case.

The trouble can be summed up very succinctly, I think. People are not sanctioned for being guilty of crimes. They are executed, jailed or fined for being convicted of crimes. Despite (or, as some cynics would tell you, in spite of) the best efforts of the criminal justice system, you may be one without being the other. The Supreme Court has never found "a constitutional right for the actually innocent to be free from execution," because, basically, if shockingly, it limits itself to the issue of conviction.

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Note that is says: "without due process of law," and not: "unless they are actually guilty of the crime." It's an important distinction, and will remain so until investigative infallibility can be reasonably achieved.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Okay, New Rule

Sometimes, you really have to wonder if politicians actually give a rip.

Once upon a time, the Governor of Massachusetts had the power to immediately appoint a new Senator to fill a vacant seat. Nothing out of the ordinary there.

But then, two things happened. Mitt Romney became Governor, and John Kerry ran for President. If Senator Kerry had won, he would have had to resign his seat. Massachusetts Democrats, fearing that the Republican Romney would appoint another Republican to the now-vacant Senate seat, changed the rules, so that a vacant Senate seat would be filled by a special election, to be held within 145 to 160 days after the seat becomes vacant.

But then, two more things happened. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, was elected to become Governor, and Senator Edward Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps coming to terms with his own mortality, Kennedy realized that if he died, Senate Democrats would be down a vote - and that one vote might make all the difference. So rather than leave the Democratic caucus down a vote, potentially for several months, Kennedy is asking for the law to be changed back to the way it was.

I've got a better idea - just pass a law that says vacant seats shall be filled in whatever way is most politically beneficial to Democrats, and leave it at that. It's simpler and more honest.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Name That Voice (Update: VI)

Leave a message anonymously and I'll post the audio and transcript. You can simply say something with the aim of people trying to guess whose voice your message belongs to, or you can even reply to a particular fray post or poster by voice/transcript.

It's free.

Click on the Call Me widget above, put your phone number in the fields and click connect. Your phone will ring and you'll be prompted to leave a voicemail.

And here we go...

Update I - Geoff

Transcript: so i don't come into the place much anymore enter this is a message for you to mentor message for jeff please make sure they checked gets this message so you don't know how to jeremy the moderator came up with the brilliant scheme to send these idiots over here right would be a game that idea of course it with you jeff the here's my message for you to have your complete you probably have a very short T nelson it's probably not make it all probably like the size of my little cousin key and you probably never get late and he's screw people over in other ways like your friends at best of the freight never did you any harm sure they don't recognize your is or your your greatest but the truth is jeff european anywhere a week ago and you could do your job if you're not qualified for a new never deserved it and that you would urged jeremy to send the freight worst offenders over here is really the perfect party trotman very tiny you know jeff you're probably sort of person you take this on the road when he's moving out of the place

Update II - You're the sort of person...

Update III - Song for Zeus-Boy

Update IV - Message for Dawn (and Zeus-Boy)

Update V - Inspector Gadget

Update VI - Harmonica Solo...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Balancing Act

I was listening to Marketplace Money this weekend, and heard a commentary from their Economics Editor, Chris Farrell. He was critical of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch's comments that "there is no such thing as work-life balance; there are work-life choices," and that women who choose to spend significant amounts of time with their children do so at the expense of advancement prospects. One thing that struck me was that that Mr. Farrell equates having "a family" (in its form as a euphemism for "children"), as in simply having children in the home, with being an active and engaged parent. If people could simply hand over the responsibility of day-to-day child care to others who would do the job well, through "high-quality day care and good after-school programs," there would be no need to make trade-offs.

You could, if you chose, boil Jack Welch's comments down to a simple truism: "There are so many hours in day, and people who are willing to spend more of those hours advancing the interests of their businesses are likely to do better than people who spend fewer hours. Choose which is more important to you." You could then boil Mr. Farrell's comments down to: "Children are important, so business should make it easier to choose to have children by reducing the amount of time that parents need to directly spend with them, allowing parents more time to compete for promotions with their childless co-workers, while still thinking themselves responsible parents."

Okay, all well and good. But Mr. Farrell never satisfactorily answers one important question: Why should business be in the habit of choosing which of its employees' outside choices to support?

The impact of family friendly policies like these would be dramatic. We'd end up with more competition from women for the leadership ranks of society. We'd also have better family values.
The more I think about this, the more I come to conclude that Mr. Farrell actually hates children. Maybe what we need isn't more competition from women, but less from men. To the degree that women are in this situation because it's considered okay for working fathers to prioritize their careers above their families (spouses and children alike) I don't think that the answer is empowering working mothers to also routinely work long hours. It seems that if we're going to change social structures and rewards to change behaviors, we're better off prompting fathers to spend more with their wives and children, and pushing the childless to get the hell out of the office and go take a vacation someplace where power lunches and laptops are considered capital offenses. Since when does better family values come from the freedom of parents to pass their children off to others so that we can tell them that they shouldn't feel guilty about seeing their offspring as impediments to climbing the power structure?

I suspect that the issue with career versus family isn't that family isn't important enough. It's that career is too important - after all, Mr. Farrell tells us, it's doing well in the business world that counts.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Well, It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

She's been cranky recently. I didn't know why for a couple of days.

I'd been meaning to ask her to tell me about "the Tiananmen Event," as she calls it, for some time. I'd always wanted to know from her what it was like to be there. We've talked about it once or twice; I think that she was bitterly disappointed that from Chicago, we saw them as a bunch of poor, brave sods, quixotically marching off to their doom. In the here and now, she's a heroine - she doesn't understand the vast amount of currency she has with people we know, the immense respect that blossoms as soon as they hear about it. I don't know how to explain it to her, or how she would react. I don't know that she'd like it. I suspect she wouldn't.

Now, with the anniversary of the Event looming, she's been feeling sad and isolated. There are other people from China here. Some that she's known since Junior High School, but none that were with her during Tiananmen. Those people are all somewhere else. Those that survived. She told me of saying good-bye to one of her friends. When she next saw him, 12 hours later, he'd bled to death. Once, when she went back to China to visit her family, her cab was nearly run off the road. Another friend told her that it was the dead man's ghost, trying to kill her. He'd loved her, you see, and wanted her to be with him forever. Ghost stories, I can related to. Having good friends killed, and finding out later they loved me, I can't.

Tomorrow, she'll be miserable. She'll come and talk to me, and I, unable to soothe her misery, will share it, instead. This I will hide from her. She may guess, she may not. She wants to talk to someone who will understand so badly. The fact that I'm the best she can do crushes my soul. She called her parents the other day. The connection was poor. They were cut off a couple of times. It's not usually like that. She suspects that the government is monitoring her parent's phone, so she didn't mention it.

I haven't participated in any of the social movements that have gone on in the United States recently. And all of the really great ones were before my time. So I am forced to read about them in newspaper web archives or watch old news clips. There will be nothing about Tiananmen in the Chinese media. Many of those who were prominent, and on the side of the students, have been un-personed. They now exist only in the memories of those who knew them, and in the press of foreign lands.

When I go to bed this evening, and when I wake up tomorrow morning, I won't be able to tell you what I was doing, exactly twenty years ago. I don't know if that leaves me worse off than her, or better.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What They Don't Know...

Let me see if I understand this properly. American troops have abused prisoners in their custody. That much we know. There are photographs of the abuse. That we also know. But to release the photographs would "'further inflame anti-American opinion' and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan." We know that, too? Really?

So we're supposed to understand that people in the Muslim world, while they are upset about the abuse, will only get REALLY mad if they can see the pictures? That might very well be true, but it seems nonsensical to me, given the fact that in absence of the of the pictures, people can create whatever stories they like about what happened, and "further inflame anti-American opinion" that way. I suppose that your could make the point that the photographs show abuse so heinous that nobody's imagination, no matter how fertile, could possibly come up with a worse scenario, but to borrow a line from Star Wars, "I can imagine quite a lot."

And of course, this raises another point. If the prisoner abuse was so bad that letting people find out what really happened, "could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops, coalition forces, and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan," we had better be doing everything in our power to make sure that it doesn't happen again. But if, as we all know, secrecy breeds abuses, aren't we still creating a breeding ground? Come, Mister President. You promised us better than that.

"The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."
President Barack Obama, Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, 21 January, 2009.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Blogging So You Think You Can Dance

So You Think You Can Dance (or SYTYCD for those in the know) is the best thing on summer TV. The one and only problem with the show is it's not the sort of show people bother to give a chance. That is to say, at first blush the idea--American Idol light, only with dancing instead of singing--doesn't seem like such a good idea at all. Unless, that is, you're already into dance.

But here's the thing. The reality-competition format works better for a dance competition than it does a singing competition precisely because the world of dance is so foreign to most of us. And SYTYCD works so well because despite being on TV, it remains about dance. To put it another way, people become singers and go into the music business to become rich, famous, stars. Dancing is a bit different. Sure, if you want to be a star it helps if you can dance, but for those whom dancing is their main gig, their true talent, superstardom isn't even an option. So who bothers with dance? People who live and breath dance. Quirky, eccentric, artsy, passionate people who have devoted their lives to dance, not because they wanted to become rich and famous, but because they love dance.

So SYTYCD succeeds where AI doesn't because there's nothing strategic about devoting your life to dance, making those who have achieved success in the dance world the truly talented in their field as opposed to the famous personalities that have maneuvered their way to stardom in television, music, movies. When you watch SYTYCD, you quickly realize it's not made for TV, and that's because the people making it never planned on being stars of TV. So instead they do the best they can, which is simply opening a window to their world, the dance world. And what a delight it is to discover a subculture filled with passionate, talented, hard working, brilliant people.  Take it from me, a non-dance type person, SYTYCD will surprise and impress you.

Join us at So You Think You Can Dance Season 5 Social for the season premiere, Thursday May 21, 2009 at 8:00/7:00c on FOX.

Monday, April 27, 2009


When John Updike died, I read him for the first time. The New Yorker ran a selection of prose that snared me, particularly a piece about a man joining a pick-up basketball game.

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he's twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy. He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.
I later learned this gorgeous passage was from the beginning of Rabbit, Run. Hard times have reduced the book budget, but I convinced mrs. august to support purchase of the paperback.

I should have gone to the library. Somehow I missed that Updike's quartet of novels feature a first degree schmuck, Harry Angstrom, the "rabbit" of the title who is too timid to make a decision and simply drifts around hoping for a redemptive moment, or at least the passing exhilaration of a good golf swing.

I do not require protagonists to be good. I love Humbert Humbert, who is klutzily evil and is all too gloriously aware of both his demons and his incompetence. In Rabbit, Run, the figure who bothers me is not Rabbit, but Updike.

My sympathy for Humbert comes in spite of my revulsion, but Updike wants to make the revolting sympathetic. Pauline Kael once wrote a review of Clockwork Orange in which she took Stanley Kubrick to task for making the audience cheer on the main character:
Stanley Kubrick's Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is not so much an expression of how this society has lost its soul as he is a force pitted against the society, and by making the victims of the thugs more repulsive and contemptible than the thugs Kubrick has learned to love the punk sadist. The end is no longer the ironic triumph of a mechanized punk but a real triumph. Alex is the only likable person we see -- his cynical bravado suggests a broad-nosed, working-class Olivier -- more alive than anybody else in the movie...
So too with Rabbit Angstrom. He is the only complete character in the novel, and I am meant to see his quest as noble. I'm supposed to feel his pain, to want to leave an alcoholic wife and fart about town in search of sex acts amenable to purple prose. We only meet his abandoned wife for a few pages, the only time the omniscient, present-tense narration enters her mind, just in time for her to drown her baby. Do not commit adultery, but if you do, take the kids

I can see the argument that Humbert is just as bad, that you can't love Lolita without loving Lolita. But in fact you can, and part of what makes Humbert so morosely depressing is the gulf between his reveries and the truth of teenagers. Humbert also anticipated the oversexualized world of now. We should all be so self-hating.

Both Humbert and Angstrom are literary creations that germinated language and allowed new angles on post-war America. The problem is that I don't find Updike's lens to be all that interesting. Maybe it was more revolutionary in 1960 to note that young men can be dissatisfied in their marriages, unable to express their feelings, and self-absorbed. Rabbit is too bland to be incisive, and Updike offers no other opening into the novel's world. I feel no better equipped to make sense of Rabbit and his habitat at the end of the novel, and by then I don't care.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Somalia and the Leaden Age of Piracy

Wikifray seems lonely lately. So I decided that I'd share one of my recent posts with it. I rather like this one. It came together fairly quickly, and I think that it's coherent and rational. If you'd like, please comment, either here, or on Nobody In Particular. Thanks, y'all! -Aaron
While Somali pirates have been a quietly brewing story on the back burner for years, their recent seizure of an American ship and crew suddenly lifted the SEP (Somebody Else's Problem) field that had grown up around the issue here in the United States. With their usual outrage of the fact that some lowly foreigners would dare to attack anything American, angry commentators have been filling online comment pages with calls for ground invasions and carpet bombings.

Of course, the situation is much more complicated that many people understand. Gently woven throughout the current news is the idea that Somali piracy is an outgrowth of waterborne vigilantism, sparked by illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste in the waters off Somalia after the collapse of government there. A quick Google search turned up the fact that Somalia's government was outed by warlords in 1991, and an article in the New Scientist about concerns over the dumping of waste in 1992. NS is a subscription site, so I couldn't read the whole piece, but it seems that foreign companies were looking to make deals with warlords for permission to dump, and they weren't wasting any time.

By the start of 2005, the issue had poked its head into the news again, as the Indian Ocean Tsunami had deposited previously dumped waste on the Somali coastline, and some estimates put the haul from illegal fishing in Somali waters at $300,000,000.00 a year. The infant pirate operations made it into the American news with an attack on the Seabourn Spirit cruise liner, but since the crew drove the pirates off with water cannon and an acoustic device on the ship, American interest quickly faded again.

In Why Terrorism Does Not Work, Max Abrahms makes the point that people see the outcome of an attack as the purpose of an attack. This puts the Somalis in a bit of a bind. People reject the argument that the piracy is a response to the illegal fishing and waste dumping, seeing it (rightly or wrongly) as a self-serving rationalization for common brigandage. But the only attention that their claims of maritime injustice get at all nowadays is within the context of that piracy.

This is not to say that the international community SHOULD consider the root cause of the piracy to be the accusations of foreign fishing and dumping. To do so would remove the Somalis themselves as an active agent in their own activities. And even if these things had not occurred, piracy for ransom takes place in other parts of the world - the former pirate hot spot, the Strait of Malacca, has been largely forgotten recently, but it's not inactive - and it's not a stretch to imagine that a warlord could have hit upon the idea of piracy as a moneymaking venture, or simply to steal goods being shipped. And also ignores another important fact - the best way for Somalia to manage its coastline and fisheries is to have a functioning government that can do the job. Of course, that's going to come with issues of its own. The warlords are unlikely to take kindly to being shut out of power, while the international community is unlikely to accept any government that includes them, and foreign powers have shown a willingness to back efforts to destabilize governments they don't like.

But in the end, the piracy will persist, until it's no longer the most profitable (and not simply in terms of money) option. Simply setting out to make piracy unprofitable can be done - the French have shown a hard-nosed unwillingness to take any flack from the Somalis. If everyone acted in this way, it would likely nip the problem quickly - although some hostages would be killed in the bargain, and public opposition to that in some places will make a unified front unlikely. Or an effort could be made to stabilize the place long enough for a viable government to establish itself, and get the waters around Somalia under control, and keep out illegal fishing and dumping. I'm nor betting on that one, either. Yet. But the status quo won't work forever, and nothing is more constant than change. So we'll see what evolves out of this.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Red Poppy