Sunday, November 30, 2008

born to run skate

I'm trying to figure out why my fiance gets misty eyed at Bruce Springsteen songs. She gets all revved up to "born to run," and "thunder alleyroad," (my bad) and shakes her hair around like a terrestrial spaghetti monster, and apparently so does much of the rest of Western civilization. But I can't get much further in than tapping my foot vaguely at the better guitar licks.

There are plenty of other songs that turn my crank, so why does uber rock god, The Boss, leave me so tepid? I think, maybe, the music and lyrics conflict for me. The music is upbeat and edgy, but the lyrics are just kinda sad - they're about a lonely lunkhead who likes to drive around fast, and uh, drive around fast, who is staving off imminent Al Bundydom for a night. How? By talking a girl into joining him for an exciting evening of flirting with wrapping his engine block around a lamp post (or, if he's less lucky, smashing it through the neighbour's kid). It's like a romantic invitation to play chicken on the highway, or to stand right on the edge of a very tall building or something, just to feel some thrills. All of which is just... sad.

So what am I not getting? I think it's the cultural meaning that cars have in the states as the (not) living incarnation of freedom. If you're 16 and don't have a car, you're a caged victim stuck at your parents house, while those with wheels can explore the whole world*. I understand that, but as a guy who grew up on public transit, who has literally never owned a car in my life, only in an intellectual way. It's like how I understand that some South American tribes think it's pretty tough to paint themselves red and poke a stick through their bottom lip - I get the meaning, but not the vibe.

I try to think of my equivalents. I figure I could get myself a bit worked up about the freedom of hockey blades, how you can cut on them, carve and coast, how you can take off and reverse direction without even slowing down, all with the wind blowing through your hair - and most Americans wouldn't even get what I was talking about on that intellectual level...

So I guess that until someone writes a good song about life on ice, I'm just stuck with Arcade Fire, Pulp, and Billy Joel. Only The Good Die Young, now THERE'S a seductive song :)

* Operationally defined by most Americans people as: "my town and environs."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What if SerialKiller McRapist switched places with a Bush appointee?

Greenwald makes some excellent points. Highly worth a read, and it inspired me to think: What WOULD the world be like if a regular criminal were to trade places for a little while with the Bush administration?

"Critics argue that Mr. McRapist should face sanctions for the aggressive seductions he carried out, which they term 'rape,' and the strong executive actions he took in terminating the living privilages of troublemakers who had caused offense - or as the extreme fringes of the liberal world term it 'cold blooded murder'. But really, why pursue the divisive policy of further investigating and punishing him for such hotly contested actions? Already he has suffered name calling and finger pointing, and any investigation would surely take up valuable court time that should be devoted to real problems. There are government officials who have planned and carried out torture, war profiteering, and killing of (often innocent) prisoners who were held without due process - and all this in direct contravention of a constitution which is the last, best, barrier between any of us and government tyrany. We can't afford to be soft on these crimes, as other governemnts waiting in the wings will only be tempted into further and worse crimes against humanity. So, please, drop the partisan divisiveness over McRapist's aggressive property gathering techniques. Ranting and shouting and calling it 'armed robbery' and 'theft over $10,000' does nothing to heal the wounds of a nation that should be getting past such rancorousness."

A personal victory in an abstract war on the personal.

In the news a Florida court allows a 47 year old gay man to adopt 2 children (4 and 8) that he has been caring for for several years, finding no evidence that gays in any way make inferior parents or that children are harmed.

Many lament that the struggle for gay rights in the US has largely consisted of court victories and referendum losses. There are obvious reasons for this (i.e., gay rights win in court marraige because there is no rational case for banning gay marriage, and referendum losses pile up because we are still waiting for the older generation who were raised in a more blanketly homophobic climate to shuffle off the voting coil), but there's maybe a more subtle reason too:

It's a lot easier to deny someone the ability to do something so intensely personal as getting married or adopting children when you consider them from the emotional abstract distance of a voting booth. Pulling a lever for an idea when you are standing, anonymous and isolated, is pretty easy. It's the same way that it's pretty easy to shrug off headlines about starvation when we pass them in a newspaper box on the street. It may suck, but what's it really to do with you.

But in court you are face to face with a real human being who eats and breathes and sleeps like you, who has a mom and a dad, friends, likes and dislikes - who is a real person, and not just an idea. And it's much harder to tell someone to their face that they, personally, cannot marry the person that they love, whom they have lived with for twelve years, who they kiss each night, and celebrate each birthday with, that they two cannot marry each other because I have philosophical qualms about what it represents to my idea of 'family.'

It is easier to put a check mark on a ballot next to the word "war" than it is to personally kill someone with your own hands.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lieberman: Debacle, or short man on end of stiff plank with point object at his back?

So the bloggers are bellyaching about whether the netroots got kicked in the pants by Lieberman getting to keep his plush job. The highly recommended Whiskey Fire thinks that it's nothing to do with the bloggers, but it's the liberal congress things that got screwed.

The way I see it, Lieberman only looks like he's holding any cards. Sure he seems to have got what he wanted, and sure he's unlikely to get yanked in the middle of a session - that would just be embarrassing. But the house showed that it was willing to boot a member with higher standing when it shunted Levin out in favor of Waxman, so Lieberman knows that there's a recent and ready precedent for a strong challenger to cut him off at the knees in 2 years, and he knows that he has at best fair weather friends over on the Republican side, who agree with him on almost nothing but Iraq... So now has to chairmanate like he's actually worried about losing it, and he can't afford to make any enemies along the way among the democratic ranks who may soon depose him.

There's nothing like a senator who is starting to feel the burn under his little tosies to produce a delightful display of jumping back into line with alacrity.

Good boy Joe. The memo on "how high" is on its way.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Coercive interrogation" is a destructive euhpamism

Read Sullivan's whole post... but here to get you started:

"Under coercive conditions". Excuse me, but what does that mean in English? Try: Because they got intelligence from torturing people. Coercion means force. It means they forced "information" out of them. Not coax, trick, lure, force. That means the victims had no choice. And the only way in which human beings can seriously have no choice at all is by subjecting them to such severe mental and physical pain and suffering that they have no option as human beings but to tell their torturers something.

This is the defining line of torture: not some arbitrary comic book technique, but a psychological and physical fact: pushing another human being to the point where choice becomes unavailable to him or her. You can do this in any number of ways; it can take Agcorpse2 three seconds of electrocution or it can take two months of sleep deprivation, hypothermia and darkness. But the line it eventually crosses is the same line. Throughout human history, human beings have known what that line is, and the West was constructed on a disavowal of ever crossing it again. Why? Because a society that endorses torture commits itself not to limiting, but to extinguishing human freedom. And a protection of human freedom in its most minimal form is what our entire civilization is premised on.

Once that force is unleashed - and it is pure evil - it is almost impossible to stop it destroying your entire system of government. Maybe Europeans like me, who grew up in a land where torture was practiced by government widely in the distant past, and had that history dinned into us, understand this more acutely than those who have never known anything but a New World. But trust us Old Worlders passionate about the New: America and torture are mutually exclusive as ideas and realities. You can have one or the other. You cannot have both.

So when I read an American use the meaningless euphemism - "under coercive conditions" - as if force can be a condition that hovers in the air without anyone accountable for it, I shudder. When I read him tiptoe around what we are actually talking about, and express sympathy for those who tortured, illegally and secretly and against their oath of office, I shudder some more. Because we are numbing ourselves from moral responsibility and the only true protection we have from tyranny: the rule of law.

Even the word "torture" can be too vague and abstract a term. So let us state in plain English...

Read the rest here

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Libertarianism & communism: similar opposites

There's a weird triangle between fascism, communism, and libertarianism over the absoluteness of social control they lead to. Stay with me here a sec. Fascism says control comes from a "benevolent" dictator, communism says it comes from collective action, and libertarianism says it comes from individual contracts.

That last one may not sound like social control - and it isn't, when all parties involved (and not just the contracting ones) have symmetrical information, and (nearly) equal power. You can surely contract with your supermarket over Kraft Dinner without control being a major issue, but there are many places where these conditions are not met.

For example, there's a classic ethical dilemma that goes like this: Mr. Smith's wife is dying of a terrible illness. The pharmacist has a drug that would save her life, but refuses to sell it to Smith at a price that he can afford. Smith pleads and wheedles, and tries to negotiate barters or extended terms of payment to no avail, and resorts to stealing the drug to save his wife's life. Were his actions correct?

Those with moderately advanced moral reasoning, researchers claim, see Smith as justified in his action, as a human life is a higher good than mere possession of objects; the demands of saving a life outweigh the demands of protecting property.

Pure libertarianism fails this test. The libertarian would construe attempts to compel the pharmacist to offer the drug at an affordable price as a form of taxation that impinges on freely chosen action. In doing so it holds contracts to be more important than the very lives of the people who would hold them.

This placement of abstract rules above human life and suffering puts it in a league with doctrinaire communism. As much as it would be nice to believe that we are all islands, connected only by the contracts that we choose, this is just as wrong as believing that we are nothing more than a component in a collective. It shouldn't be rocket science, but libertarians seem and communists alike tend to forget that basic humanity requires we take an interest in the welfare of our fellow travelers, weighting carefully the complex trade offs between personal and collective interests. There may be ironclad cases to be made for each pole (person and collective), but sometimes ironclads clash, and we have to put aside the pleasures of dogmatic certainty in favor of pragmatic balances.

But there is a greater rub still: Libertarianism is a self defeating system. It may only fail badly when there are extreme power imbalances (say, between a South American villager, and a multinational corporation who dumps toxins into his drinking water as a side effect of producing goods it profitably sells to Europeans), but, if run long enough, will create these power gaps, even where they didn't exist before.

Unfettered laissez faire capitalism tends to be good at creating wealth, but lousy at distributing it. The turn of the 19th century (and to a lesser extent, the Bush years) saw turns towards libertopian economic freedom. It saw enormous wealth disparities created, with robber barons hoarding vast amounts of wealth, and the poor becoming poorer. A rich person has many options in a negotiation that a poor person does not. Only one of them can be placed in a position of NEEDING the other, for a job that provides food and shelter and care for vulnerable relatives. And when only one party needs the other, you have the very definition of a strongly power imbalanced negotiation that invites abuse.

Lest you think I'm making this up, on this great page of libertarian-relevant quotes, there is the following gem:
23- And God saw everything he had made, and he saw that it was very good; and God said, It just goes to show Me what the private sector can accomplish. With a lot of fool regulations this could have taken billions of years.
Author unknown
I assume that God is the merchant here. Now think about the powers involved. God: infinite. Us: not so much. God, as a good capitalist, should try to get the best possible terms She can. If She can make us give up everything we have for free, that would be entirely rational... And let's face it, She pretty much could. If God is a libertarian then we are all very much screwed.

Footnote: Now even Bill Kristol is down on the Libertopian vision. Yes, THE Bill Kristol I was mocking just a few posts back. Reality has come a little loose, my head hurts.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Role model Bush changes the world for the better

It seems, (via)

With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr Sarkozy told Mr Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia’s Government...

The Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls,” Mr Putin declared.

Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. “Hang him?” — he asked.

“Why not?” Mr Putin replied. “The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.”

Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: “Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?”

Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: “Ah — you have scored a point there.

The phrase "Well that's the Bill Gates way" has a similar effect on programmers.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The future of the GOP

Lots of people are bellyaching over who will lead the GOP in the future. Right now the important thing, though, is whether they'll ever figure out that the trick to government is not how big it is, but what you do with it. They aren't going anywhere till they've gotten over their size fetish.

America: guns are defense. Canada: guns are offense

When I was a young and earnest Canadian I met some real live Americans at a model UN, and was able to put it to them that "it is insane that in the States you can legally own a gun, which represents the ability to instantly kill anyone at a whim, but if you show them your nipples you will be put in jail, but only if you are a woman". They acknowledged that this sounded weird but insisted that it had to be right because it just was, and what sort of a jerk was I for pressing such an unreasonable comparison at them. Cultural truisms are disturbingly resistant to logic.

Having lived now in both countries, I think the reason for this difference is that in America there is a far greater sense of floating imminent threat than in Canada. People here seem far more worried about crime and being attacked, and sometimes seem surprised at how unconcerned I am. I've had to soothe Americans, when walking through urban Toronto late at night, that there was absolutely nothing dangerous or silly about what we were doing.

So in America there's a greater sense that you have to defend yourself against facelss threats, for which purpose owning guns makes a lot of sense. In Canada, though, guns don't make you any safer because you already feel quite safe. To a Canadian (and quite a lot of urban Americans) the only real use for a hand gun is for making trouble, so they naturally regard it as crazy that you would want to allow many people to have them.

Now, American fears are somewhat justified by the staggeringly higher murder rate south of the border. But from a Canadian point of view this is extra irony, as the higher murder rate stems entirely from elevated rates of handgun deaths (mostly between people who know each other - statistically strangers don't often kill strangers), thus apparently confirming that guns are good for nothing but making lots of very deadly trouble, and banning trouble makes perfect sense.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sarahead revisited

Governor Palin clears up all the confusion about whether she knew Africa was a continent:

“My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars.”

Well sorry. Allow me to amend my analogies:

The once putative Goldman Sachs boss explained that she does know what liquidity is, because her mom bounced a check once, "and Safeway didn't have the office for paying of behind amounts, which was hard too on many aunts and uncles, which is relevant to cheesesteak and barbecue sauce, because paydays were Friday, also."

And the formerly erstwhile heart surgeon candidate? "Well it's great to be here speaking without a filter from the mainstream medical textbooks that say the heart is on the left side, when those of us in these more patriotic here regions kind of know that it attaches closer to your right wing, which is relevant for Alaska's position on the left of America's map, which is wrong also, because Alaska is America's heart unlike those city parts which are veins."

Oh Sarah, it's so great that you're rehabilitating your good name.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Defending marriage (and democracy and golf)

California passes a law to "defend marriage." What does that mean?

So one man and one man is not a marriage. Hm. But I guess that's ok, because gays can still marry an opposite gender person if they want. Fair enough.

Let's try it elsewhere. How about the traditional definition of democracy:

Ergo, one woman, no vote. But don't worry, it's still fair, because a woman can still influence elections by persuading her husband or brother. Heh.

How about our long standing and important sporting traditions?

Don't be swayed by modern fads, Tiger Woods can perfectly well still hit balls at home... uh, with sticks... if he, ah, wanted...

Wait, maybe there's something wrong with this argument...


Analogies aside, a Q&A for conservatives:

Q: My Religion prohibits gay marriage:
So don't gay marry.

Q: I should have the religious freedom to ban it if I want.
A: But my religion says gay marriage is fine. Tell you what, you can ban that bit of my religion if I can ban other bits of yours... How about, say, wearing crosses. Deal? Ixnay on the gay marriage in return for ixnay on the crucifix necklaces. Isn't freedom grrrreat?

Q: But my religion says gay marriage is a sin.
A: And it also says that blasphemy is a sin, right? But I don't see you trying to vote cussing illegal. So either gay marriage is more important to you than the 3rd commandment (2nd for Catholics), or you have already accepted that your religious beliefs should not be imposed wholesale on everyone else.

Q: Gay marriage is really about justifying weird sex acts.
A: No, it's about being able to marry the person you love. If it was just about freaky sex then gays wouldn't want to get married would they? They'd just have freaky sex and not worry about promises of forever.

Q: The whole point of marriage is go have kids.
A: Hey, great point.


And on second thoughts, gay people often are fertile, can have kids, and do a wonderful job of raising them too. So I guess this argument isn't so good after all.

Q: But being gay is a choice!
A: How would this conversation with yourself work? "Hm, a lifetime of persecution, marginalization, and violence? Sign me up!"

Look, I couldn't be attracted to my own gender if I tried. Not even for a minute. To me, men hold the sexual thrills of boiled cabbage. If you find that you are capable of feeling romantic love towards same gendered people, then I hate to break it to you but you aren't completely straight. I suggest you come to peace with it in your own personal way.

Q: Ah, but then if gay marriage is banned I won't be tempted into that sin!
A: And if cheeseburgers were banned you wouldn't be tempted by those either. Actually you would, remember how well prohibition worked?

Q: But all those other things, gender and race are genetic. Homosexuality isn't. Says
There is clear evidence that people are not born homosexual. For example, studies of identical twins have found that when one twin is homosexual, the likelihood of the other twin also being homosexual is only 50 percent or less. If homosexuals were "born" that way, the incidence of homosexuality among identical twins would be 100 percent since they share exactly the same genetic material.
A: About 5% of the population is gay, so that means that your odds of being gay are literally 10 times higher if your identical sibling is gay. Gee, that *totally* doesn't sound like a genetic influence at all. :headdesk: Do they even think about this stuff before they post it?

Anyway, the point is that you can no more decide who to fall in love with than you can where lightening will strike. If you could custom order the people you love, and then love them on command, our lives would all be a whole lot easier.

Q: Homosexuality isn't natural.
A: Neither are cars, televisions, or pretty much anything on the McDonalds menu.
Though, really, gay sex is found in almost all the species of animals that nature has to offer, so, yes, actually it is natural. Who knew.

Q: But if you can marry same gender, then why not children or animals too?
A: Can animals knowingly, and with full understanding, pledge their entire life to remain with you, to love and honor, to join body and soul? Can children? In fact, can either of them form any kind of legal contract whatsoever? Nope. So there you go.

Q: But gay marriage is just wrong because, ugh... well it is.
A: That's the price of freedom I'm afraid. You have to let people do things that make you go "ugh," unless you have a spectacularly good public safety reason why they shouldn't. And there is simply no such good reason to ban gay marriage.

Q: But... But...
A: "America, sweet land of liberty*

* offer applies only in Massachusetts and Connecticut."
Doesn't fit very well does it?

Q: But it's my right to vote to ban anything I think is bad! That's what democracy is about!
A: And what constitutions are for is to protect unpopular minorities from the tyranny of squirmy majorities. They stop us from, say, suspending the right of women to vote, or of Jews to not be arbitrarily thrown in jail, or the left-handed to marry the right-handed ("what, we're not saying they can't get married at all, just not to right-handed people!") - no matter how many of us vote for it.

And hey, you'll be glad of it some day when whichever minority you (or your loved ones) belong to ends up on the short end of some majority's stick. You don't even have to speak out for other groups now, before anyone comes for yours, you just have to support the constitution's regular ability to protect us all. And that includes the right of consenting adults to marry the one that they love, whether or not you approve of their particular combination of races, genders, or religions. You don't have to like it, you just have to think how you'd feel if I had a power of veto over your choice of spouse.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Bill Kristol: Lex Luthor minus the super villain powers

Bill Kristol, NY Times columnist, and erstwhile New Republic editor, has been getting a lot of flak for being wrong about... well, everything. He was catagorically wrong about every aspect of why it would be a good idea to invade Iraq, he was a champion of Sarah Palin as VP, before she was selected and (with regularity) after it was clear she was a punchline in a dress. He was boosterish of McCain's chances on the eve of his atomic electoral wedgie...

So he should be fired, right? Don't be silly, the news is an entertainment industry. There's a reason they're called news "stories." Sure 'reality-based' is a key part of their appeal, but that's (even more) true of OECD reports, and nobody reads those. No, the media require drama, and drama requires conflict, mistakes, and surprise. How boring would it be if Clark Kent wrote in his Daily Planet column that "superman will obviously defeat Lex Luthor given his combination of flying, super strength, super reflexes and X-ray vision," and Lex pens an opposing column saying "Yes, that's probably true actually." Our real world heroes are generally non super powered, so the punditocracy needs to supply exceptionally non-super villains to keep moving paper.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

gold star for excellence in jeeogerafy

Via Balloon-juice, Via GOS:

Sarah Palin didn't know that Africa was a continent.

It's like Goldman Sachs narrowly turning down a CEO candidate, only to find that they believes a balance sheet is something you practice on at the gym, that liquidity is what you get from too many beers, and that a financial instrument is a device for playing Finnish folk music. It's like someone nearly making head vascular surgeon at John Hopkins who turns out to believe that "veins" is what bitchy people call you, that "arrhythmia" is a variant of the lambada, and that "ventricle" is what octopuses have eight of.

30% of the American population still regard her as savior incarnate.... at some point, analogies fail.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

conservative communication?

We're starting to see conservative bloggers fretting about why they lost the election. Some think they just have to communicate with the voters better. The voters would fly back from the democrats deranged clutches if only the sanity of conservatism could just be explained right. Y'know, in a way they identify with...

Analogy: JoeCon Plumbers have been convincing clients for years, with ruthless effectiveness, that their program of whacking pipes with monkey wrenches is the bold manly plumbing that a real house needs, not any of that namby twisting and twidling that those LeadLib incompetents are always mincing on about, with their girly talk of adjusting, and spreading pressures, not to mention their dangerously effete crack-busting habit of wearing belts.

JoeCon now find themselves having had 6 years of exclusive access to the house, with an additional 2 years of lead executive access. Flood water gushes from crude holes in the walls, swirling up past their knees, toilets are blowing one after the other, in an unholy progression of domestic geysers. Fecal matter is dripping from the ceiling, springs are flying out of mangled water meters impaling anyone who stands too close, and the angry cheapskate neighbors are getting all upset at the raw sewage that has been piped into their living rooms for the past 5 years (hey, ain't Joe's fault that he had to kick in their door and start bashing pipes for them when the old jerk in charge refused to get his pipes up to code).

Now LeadLib have been awarded the next four years' contract, leaving JoeCon standing out on the curb, hefting his paint-chipped monkey wrench forlornly, thumbing the adjustable spinny bit in frustration, and wondering: "perhaps I just didn't communicate clearly enough..."