31 August 2008

A scientist considers the VPs

As a (journeyman) scientist, support for creationism is a real deal-breaker for me. That's just one reason the Republican primaries were so disheartening, populated as they were by intellectual troglodytes. This, on the other hand, is more comforting, somewhat soothing one of the reservations I had about Palin:
As detailed here, Gov. Palin stated in a 2006 gubernatorial debate that she has no objection to "teaching both" evolution and creation. After the debate, however, she clarified that she did not think the state should require the teaching of creationism or other anti-evolution theories alongside evolution in public schools. “I don’t think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn’t have to be part of the curriculum," she said. Beyond other statements reaffirming her belief in God, I have seen nothing that would indicate she supports making creationism part of school science curricula.
I would feel a lot more comfortable with "It should not be part of the curriculum" rather than "It does not have to be part of the curriculum," but I'll take what I can get.

Another deal-breaker for me is intellectual dishonesty. I feel about the same way about plagiarism as Ted Williams did about steroids. So Joe Biden can still kiss my ass. Five pages without quotation or citation. That arrogant son of ...

30 August 2008

A Scotsman on the Greatest American Game


College football has begun! Rejoice, rejoice! Alex Massie, who has sadly fallen to the dark side of Michigan fandom, still appreciates the finest American sports has to offer.
Baseball and the NBA have long targeted overseas markets while the NFL has built an international following these past twenty years, even playing a regular season game in London last year. Thus the rest of the world pays attention to the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady, and the New York Yankees when it watches American sports at all. But college football might as well exist in another country altogether, one that is arguably more truly American than anything the big leagues can offer.

[...]

And that, I think, was another of the reasons why I fell in love with college football. In a capitol city often defined by transience, it offered a sense of place and, for a foreigner, a reminder that it’s a big country out there. Or rather, half a dozen territories, known by curious acronyms such as ACC and SEC and numbers that spoke of the vast expanse of the prairies (Big 12) and the rolling fields of the Midwest (Big Ten).

It was a place populated by weird but compelling people too. Remarkable relics such as Joe Paterno, slick villains like Nick Saban, sweet-talking assassins such as Steve Spurrier, and blustering, bumptious braggarts like Charlie Weiss [sic]. And that’s just among the coaches. The fans, from LSU to Wisconsin, were something else. Even the names of the games seemed exotic (the Iron bowl) or filled with romance (the Red River Shootout). And while spectators at an NBA game are deafned by pop music and NFL cheerleaders seem plastic, the marching bands in college games are endearingly quaint and the cheerleaders, well, just endearing.
The whole thing is absolutely worth a read to any sports fan or observer of America. I do have one quibble though:
Perhaps it was the sight of an entire turkey being deep-fried in a windy cow-field at State College, Pennsylvania, or the genteel politeness of tailgating in Ann Arbor that helped persuade me that it would supplant baseball as my favorite American sport.
I don't know which Ann Arbor he's talking about, because the tail gating I did there didn't even hinted at genteel or polite. But that one Jim Beam VP two cars down was very generous with the cask-strength sample bottles he brought, so that more than made up for it.

He also mentions how much more American college football is than the professional leagues, with their revenue sharing reverse performance drafts. He does leave out the one un-American aspect of college football: clamping the compensation of all players to the cost of tuition, room and board at their respective colleges, although maybe the amateur fetishism that causes this is true to the myth of America, if not America as it exists. (I'm not sure paying players would make the game any better, but floor and ceiling price controls on labor aren't the most American thing.)

Check out the full article and more at the newly launched Culture11, which I understand is supposed to be something like a conservative Slate. It would certainly be nice if the right could embrace ideas again and forget about all this mouth-breathing nationalism that's been the default of late. (Not that the left is brimming with ideas, but at least lofty educational credentials and refined tastes aren't sneered at.)

29 August 2008

Palin

If you have a blog with a politics tag then you are required to comment about things like VP selections, otherwise they take away your cape and hot air balloon.

I will advance one radical theory: Sarah Palin has more experience in one respect than the three other top dogs combined (edited to add: unrelated to the governorship). She has held a job in the private sector for about 8 years. I can respect that. And fairly gritty jobs at that.

Otherwise I really don't have much to say that isn't being covered everywhere, so I'll summarize:
Every right-wing blog: "This is pure tactical genius. McCain and Palin's ovaries will march to the White House like Sherman to the Sea."

Every left-wing blog: "She has no experience and she hates women and homosexuals."

Every libertarian blog: "Errrrm. Wait and see?"
I'm also in the wait and see camp.

Pros: fought corruption and pork barrel spending successfully, decent energy policy including support for drilling, NRA membership, pro school choice, pretty good fiscally, approval rating in home state between 80 and 90%.

Cons: inexperienced, total blank slate on foreign policy and (non-firearm) civil liberties,* backed creationism in schools.

I'm putting youth in the neutral category because it could make her seem vital and energetic, or it could underline McCain's creakiness, or it could just catalyze the inexperience critiques. Tactically the inexperience may be an issue or a huge issue because it's a minefield for both camps. I'm waiting to see which side can play this smarter.

Superficially: A young, attractive mother married to her high school sweetheart with lots of kids, including one in the Army and one disabled? The cameras will eat that up. For the shallow voters out there you can capture or neutralize some of the people who backed Hillary just because of her homogametic chromosomes and some of the white guilt crowd that would have voted for Obama just for the sake of history.

Nick Gillespie has some very important leaked documents from the McCain campaign which shed light on their process. I think they may have under estimated Emeril's appeal to middle aged women, however. Personally I was holding out hope for the Motor City Madman himself, Nasty Ted Nugent.

Penultimate thought: Does she kind of remind anyone of Laura Roslin/Mary McDonnell? Should that be played up to secure the crucial geek vote? Would we even want a VP who reminds us of President Roslin? I will have to mull this over further.

Final thought: has this pick completely wiped Obama's address off the radar? I've only seen three posts in my feed reader all day about his speech, none positive. Twelve hours ago the Internet was gushing forth praise. This might be very savvy on Team McCain's part, but given their history I'm thinking it's at least partly serendipitous.

Post final thought: Periodically checking things on Palin's Wikipedia page you got to see the thing being re-organized and edited and improved in real time. Occasionally I still wonder that Wikipedia can manage to be so plastic and so stable at the same time. It's an impressive feat.



* I pretty much ignore the gay marriage debate at this point because I think the whole thing is drawn up on ideological lines that are entirely orthogonal to how I see things.

Academic Freedom and the Church, A Scuffle

From Tom Smith: USD yanks professorship from pro-choice professor, but it's OK:
Would it be possible for a philosopher, theologian, moral know-it-all, or any other sort of intellectual, who publicly espoused the RC position on abortion (as in, 'The Catholic Church's position, yup, that's me all over!') to get an appointment at even a Catholic University in the United States (barring Notre Dame and those sorts of places), in the absence of specific language in the endowment that required that the holder of a chair be (for want of a better one word description) an orthodox Catholic. The question is not, does Catholicism allow academic freedom. The real question to the honest observer is, does academic freedom allow Catholicism? At least if by Catholicism, you mean Catholicism -- the official version.
Good question.

My initial reaction is to say that the Academy does not leave much room for Catholicism, but my second reaction is to think that this first opinion smells of doom-and-gloom sky-is-fallingism which religious groups tend to default to when things are looking bleak. For the time being I'm filing this under "Should develop an opinion, but lack sufficient understanding of the problem space."

(Side note: It feels awkward to read "Notre Dame and those sorts of places." Back at ND it was always BC/Georgetown that were categorized as "those sorts of places.")

As to the more specific matter of whether the pro-choice professor in question, a one Dr Rosemary Radford Reuther, ought to have been ousted I have to agree with Mr Smith that since the chair's endowment called for a professor who "'thinks with the Church' in the fullest sense of the term" it does rather seem like a breach of contract to let her accept the position. As much as I value academic freedom it hardly seems the mark of a Gentleman Scholar to accept funds from a donor for specific purposes and then ignore the benefactor's stipulations.

As to Dr Reuther's more unconventional position that God should be referred to as "Gaia," I'm just astounded. On the one hand if we accept worship in multiple languages then we must accept multiple forms of address for God — there's nothing unique (to most Catholics) about the tetragrammaton or any other particular token. On the other hand is there any more reason to use "Gaia" than "Lawrence" or "Peggy Sue?" It seems the only thing "Gaia" has going for it is that all the Hear-Me-Roar types can express their fertility/nurturing/eco-granola aspect. Why not pick the name of an ancient deity that actually has some characteristics in common with the Catholic deity (whatever you may call it)? Odin seems to be a good choice, seeing that he sacrificed himself on a tree and all.


(Via Bainbridge)

Speech Digest

Did I watch Obama's acceptance speech? God no. Why not? Because the Dude has taken his Nietzsche to heart: if you stare long into the abyss, the abyss stares also into you.

That said, I will happily repackage a couple of choice reactions from other observers who exhibited the fortitude to endure the onslaught of mendacious banality that is the contemporary American political address.

First, Ms McArdle's summary of Mr Biden's opening act:
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are here because of the American Dream. Barack Obama, that is--isn't he dreamy, folks? And he cares about hardworking American families, because that's the kind of guy he is: a hardworking American. With a family. An American family. That's why he's going to make all of your dreams come true. Vote for Barack Obama and you'll be taller, smarter, and possessed of a fuller, more luxuriant head of hair. That's right, your whites will be whiter and your brings brighter if you'll just pull the lever for Obama/Biden. Also, every one of you will get a free trip to Disneyland!
Matt Welch on watching the speech from a Denver saloon:
Meanwhile, another table has been drinking at every utterance of the word "change." Man, are they drunk right now.
That's my kind of political activism. I still contend that you haven't really lived inside the Beltway until you've played a State of the Union drinking game.

Kathryn Jean Lopez with a Biden zinger:
Obama: “Washington’s been talking about our oil addiction for the last thirty years, and John McCain has been there for twenty-six of them.”

Wasn't Joe Biden in his second senate term then?
Ba-zing!

Jesse Walker on the Barackstar's view of government:
Government cannot solve all our problems. Just the ones involving energy, education, work, the weather, cities, the countryside, sick children, sick mothers, joblessness, hopelessness, and frightening foreigners who do not live in Iraq. Now if you'll all look under your seats, every one of you is going home with a new car!
Katherine Mangu-Ward on an unlikely influence:
Obama: "Instead, it is that American spirit — that American promise — that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend."

Seen and unseen, eh? A shout out to Frederic Bastiat?
I wish any of our politicians actually believed this. Obama and McCain (et alia) all whole heartedly buy into the broken window fallacy, so there's no way I can take seriously Obama's otherwise proper admonition to consider the unseen. DC could afford a huge heaping dose of Bastiat. I wish I could have The Law airdropped all over Capitol Hill. Maybe I can contract the guys who hand out the little tiny bibles.

I came across the following quotation in several places:
Obama: "Businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs."
False. Anyone who believes this should refer to this missive by T.J. Rodgers, founder of Cypress Semiconductor and more recently Clos de la Tech Winery. Businesses have the obligation to grow within the bounds of the law and their contractual duties. Everything beyond that is superfluous.

This is especially galling after the ad that he ran all through the Olympics about his administration creating five million jobs. Is the government going to create jobs? Are businesses? Are they going to be dropped from the sky by a helpful stork? Are they going to spring fully formed from the head of Zeus? He either has no idea how and why paid labor occurs or he puts out willfully ignorant rhetoric in order to dupe the rubes out in voterland. I'm not sure which repulses me more.

All in all I am reminded about the Bard of Baltimore's response to the Gettysburg Address:
It is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense.
That's about as good as a politician can aspire to these days.

28 August 2008

Unpaid Labor, Obama Style

Going to the Mat has a good breakdown of some of the many ways that Obama's Community Service Plan is a rotten idea, noting first that browbeating school districts into making something compulsory instead of requiring it at the national level is not really volunteering in any sense of the word. The rest of the post centers on the realization that this will create a massive new bureaucracy for reporting, monitoring and analyzing school-based servitude. If there's one thing that public schools most certainly do not need now it's more bureaucracy. (In addition you turn service organizations into supplicants, forcing them to kowtow to the DC in order to maintain their volunteering seal of approval.) In pretty much all ways I think Matt is right on.

He also notes that he's dissatisfied with the way Maryland handles "service learning hours" (our cute newspeak for required uncompensated labor). I'm not sure how it's changed in the last 6 years since I was last a Maryland student, but I didn't like it at the time. My experience with it, as well as other objections to compulsory servitude, can be found here. (I've also posted on this topic here, here and here.) Essentially the principal either kept a very strict list of approved activities, in which case they were accused of playing favorites, or the list was wide open and both student and faculty engaged in wide-spread fraud in service reporting. Neither is something I'd like to see ramped up to a national scale.

There is one thing I'd like to add. If you're the kind of person who worries about lobbyist influence in Washington than compulsory service plans ought to really ruffle your feathers. Speeding some organization through the service approval bureaucracy is exactly the kind of favor congressmen like to sell give out.* And (otherwise) free labor is exactly the kind of thing people are willing to pay for in the form of campaign donations. The more goodies you give congressmen to hand out, the more people will come grubbing around trying to get their hands on treats.



* Because it costs them little in political capital, none of their constituents will object that strongly, and if you accuse them of impropriety they fire back that you must not like the goals of the service organization they were paid off to help. "Oh you're complaining that I fast tracked my sister's day care facility? You must hate the children."

The answer is: Because it's there

Noah Millman on problems encountered while attempting to write a supplementary Obama acceptance speech:
At this late date, [I] have no idea why Obama is running. I mean, I know why: he wants to be President. He’s “got game” – you don’t need more reason. But Obama has done a rather astonishing thing: he’s built an entire movement – he’s built a fundraising and organizing machine comparable to a national political party, in fact – without really standing for anything in particular. He is not, as George McGovern was, running to take the Democratic Party decisively to the left, nor is he, as Ted Kennedy was, running to restore a certain kind of liberalism within the Democratic Party, nor is he, as Bill Clinton was, running to transform liberalism into some kind of new, Third Way synthesis. Apart from his position on Iraq, he in no way distinguished himself from his rivals as representing a particular faction or even a particular worldview within the Democratic Party or the tradition of American liberalism, and Iraq he has forcefully maintained was a matter of his personal good judgment rather than an indication that he thinks about foreign policy profoundly differently from the Washington consensus. Obama has been attacked from various quarters for running a personality-based campaign, all about his own innate wonderfulness and ability to magically bind up all our political wounds and so forth. And while it’s certainly true that Obama has his lunatic supporters who think he’s the messiah, I think the real reason he’s perceived this way is that, lacking an animating cause, the candidate himself perforce became the cause. And that’s a huge problem because, in the end, a majority of voters is simply not going to vote for Obama on the basis of his innate wonderfulness.
Good analysis, but I disagree. People will vote for him for exactly that reason. He's made himself into a blank canvas upon which any voter can project their desires. Anything you're dissatisfied with, he's the guy to change it. Gas too expensive? Barack will fix things. Worried about carbon emissions? Barack will fix things. Never mind that the fix for one will make the other worse, he's the man to make some changes.

I'm going out on a limb here, but I think this formlessness is in part a natural result of the Democratic stance recently. In my lifetime it's always been more a buffet of positions lined up for you rather than a coherent philosophy. They attract the teachers unions with this and the AARP with that and soon enough they've got 50% of the vote. (Well not quite 50, but near enough.) Not that the Republicans don't play the same constituency game but they pretend to have over arching themes like "family values" and "compassionate conservatism" and "national greatness." Their themes might be hollow, or abandoned at the first sign of inconvenience (*ahem* limited government *ahem*) but there's been an ethos in there somewhere. The closest to a theme I see on the left today is the belief that the Gov't should be actively helping nannying people through their lives, which jives really well with a smörgåsbord of positions because you don't have to worry so much about consistency and you want there to be lots of pies to stick your fingers into anyway. If that's more or less true then the shapelessness of Obama's position works even more in his favor.

If I were him I'd dial up the soaring rhetoric to 11. I think most bloggers are going to overstate how much people want to hear about concrete policies because that's what we want to hear about. I think John Q. Voter will have forgotten about the policy details by next week anyway, so why bother now? If you hit people with the bombast now while they're already in anticipation you can get them hooked for good. Plus this leaves you with the opportunity to make a comprehensive presentation of your specific platform later, generating (potentially) another national audience. Finally I don't think many people who are on the fence because they don't know what policies Obama really stands for actually care what stance he takes. They just want to feel that there's some substance there. So there's no need to use the biggest stage you've got to lay out details for them if they can be convinced in a week that there are details in there somewhere.

More Football

The Sports Economist comments on adding a couple extra games to the NFL season.

A 17 or 18 game regular season is a really atrocious idea in my mind. You may boost TV revenue in the short run, but you'll limit players' careers in the long run. On the one hand it's hard enough for rookies to adapt from 13 games in college to 16 games in the NFL. On the other hand a longer season is going to take the biggest toll on veterans who are either going to underperform at the end of the season, or suffer more injuries, or not renew that one last contract extension. (What are the chances Strahan would have come back if it meant 18 games?)

I love football. Love it completely. I think it is a near perfect game. But even with all that amorous ardor I do not want an extra two games added to the season. One of the current advantages that the college season has to the NFL is that every game counts for most teams. If you're competing to the top spot, or even a BCS slot, then one extra loss can kill a season. Lengthening the NFL season would only further deflate the effects of a loss.

The DC Universe proposes that we add even more games to the season by way of a minor league. I'm all for that if means more football, but recent experience seems like it isn't destined to be, at least not in a form I'm going to want to watch. I'd almost rather someone try and launch a rugby or Aussie rules league in the spring so I'm not constantly being reminded that I'm watching pro football, but worse.

sed 's/Love/Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame Catcher Carlton Fisk/g'

Read George Herbert's poem "Love" with every instance of the word love replaced with "Boston Hall of Fame Catcher Carlton Fisk." It's so simple, and so bizarre.

It would lend all kinds of new (semi-inappropriate) connotations to the Fisk Pole if we were to reverse the process, however.

(Via John Hodgman's Good Evening. I like him ever so much more when he doesn't blog about politics. It's as if the fervor of his beliefs deprive him of wit.)

LimoncelloQuest

LimoncelloQuest is an excellent guide to the art of home limoncello production. I like the scientific manner in which the author tests variations on ingredients and aging and presents the results on a rough/smooth vs sweet/tart visual scale. I'm going to have to ask my mother how this technique compares to her own. Needless to say her product is the gold standard by which all other limoncellos which grace my palate are judged.

If you enjoy drinking but you're never tried to make your own booze you're like a foodie that's never tried to cook. Get in their and get your hands dirty wet. Limoncello is a great place to start because you don't need much in the way of equipment and you can find the ingredients anywhere.

DC gets "Head"

Huzzah: DC gets another Lichtenstein. "Modern Head" was installed yesterday at 9th and F NW.


(The above is not DC's installation. Check the DCist site for pictures of ours being erected.)

Lichtenstein is one of my all-time favorites. I got to see a few more choice examples of his work at LACMA last week, including "Black Flowers," which was new to me:


The image doesn't really do it justice because the scale of it was one of the most interesting things to me. It looks like the kind of thing that would be perfectly natural in pen and ink at about 6" x 8" but executed in oil at 70" x 48" it's much more engaging because it looks bigger than by all rights it ought to be.

In other art notes I got to see my first two Richard Serras at LACMA as well. "Sequence" was particularly captivating, presenting a winding passage way/canyon to walk through.

The entire Broad building's ground floor is currently given over to "Sequence" and a companion piece, "Band." One complaint is that standing in them, looking upwards, you get the bland commercial ceiling of the museum which kind of took me out of the space they were creating. If they're going to stay where they are it would be nice to see the ceiling finished. I also thought how cool it could have been to have them painted by Mark Rothko in some nice rusty oranges and browns and charcoal grays.

27 August 2008

Born and raised by those who praise / control of population

I mentioned yesterday that medical marijuana is in all likelihood the only policy in the golden state that approximates sensibility in my eyes. Here's the opposite end of the CA policy spectrum, with a batshit crazy tax proposal that may be put to referendum next go around:
  • Imposes one-time tax of at least 55% on property exceeding $20 million of a California resident or held in California by nonresident.
  • Imposes one-time tax (between 36.5% - 54.3%) on income exceeding $10 million when resident dies or leaves California.
  • Imposes additional 17.5% tax on total incomes of taxpayers with income exceeding $150,000 if single, $250,000 if married; 35% if incomes exceed $350,000 if single, $500,000 if married.
  • The proceeds of this money will be used to:
    • To purchase 30% to 51% of the oustanding shares of stock in ExxonMobil, Chevron, General Motors, Ford, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and Citigroup, in order to ensure California has an uninterrupted source of energy and financial capital.
    • To drain and restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley to it's condition at the beginning of the 20th century.
    • Use any Surplus funds to combat Global Warming, make infrastructure repairs and improvements, and to research alternative energy sources.
How is that second bullet point not extortion? Requiring a fee in order to leave the state? If it stays, tax it; if it leaves, tax it more? Sounds crazy, but US expats are required to pay income taxes for a decade after renouncing citizenship. To the best of my knowledge the US is the only country which does this.

There are a ton of great universities I could eventually work at in California and I'd love to live there. But I'm legitimately scared to move into a state where this kind of confiscatory proposal is taken seriously.

In fairness I don't think even Californians are crazy enough to pass this garbage, but I try to never underestimate the folly of man. (Great position for a self-proclaimed humanist, right?)


(Via Q&O and Bainbridge)


* Title

The Stonehenge from Spinal Tap wasn't available

David Weigel on Obamandias:
"Greek columns? Behind your presidential nominee as he accepts the nomination? Not flags? Not, I don't know, tractors or something? I know Obama has looked grand before capitols and monuments before (Springfield, Berlin, San Antonio), but 1)'hubris' and 'presumption' are the only attacks on the man that have stuck and 2)Christ, Greek columns?

There is a bluntness here that I respect. Both McCain and Obama are running for Caesar. I get that. But part of the game of running for Caesar has always been pretending you don't want it, that the proles need you, and you're one of them."
Even Caesar pretended he didn't want to be Caesar.

On the other hand if Obama delivered his address in a toga candida and in Latin a la Boris Johnson I'd give him heaps of credit for doing something completely outrageous. I'm always a sucker for politicians who are permanently experiencing a significant gravitas shortfall, but that rarely describes any candidate for office higher than student body secretary* and certainly doesn't apply here. Question: What is the flag lapel pin etiquette when wearing a toga?



* Rock on, Antarctica Liberation Front & Wrablick/Beans ticket.

More politicians should brand themselves after Tom Cruise characters*

Courtesy of Porch Dog:
From TPM’s Josh Marshall
I’m hearing Bob Casey from the convention floor on my radio, and I think this line of his should become the Democrats’ new mantra: “John McCain says he’s a maverick. But he’s voted with Bush over 90% of the time. That’s not a maverick. That’s a sidekick!”
Rinse and repeat, please.
Indeed, very worth repeating.

I've been baffled since circa '99 that McCain has been able to brand himself as a maverick and an outsider. McCain's drawn a government paycheck his entire life** and spent the last quarter of a century in congress. That's not indicative of a political outlier in any dimension meaningful to me. I'm willing to bet a sixer of Yueng that if Tom Cruise's character in Top Gun had been called anything but "Maverick" this self-declared outsider status never would have stuck. But it has.

It's difficult to reconcile his maverickosity with his lengthy career in the same way it's difficult to reconcile "Change We Can Believe In" with Biden's 35 year senatorial stint. I understand the desire to preach the need for change while never reforming too much at once, but is there anything hopey or changey about Biden? He's a business-as-usual guy through and through.

My guess is that it will be harder for Biden to jump onto the change bandwagon and make it seem credible than it will be for McCain to continue the same charade, but it won't matter because Obama has already gotten people all fired up for his imminent four year hopefest of affirmative changeration, and once the people have been promised free health care and ponies and rainbows they will not be deterred.



* I've got dibs on "Last Samurai." Would you vote for a candidate who carried a sword to all his public appearances? I probably would. I'd also propose that all judicial decisions be delivered as haiku. And as an added bonus, Cruise's character actually pretends to be President at one point, so that's got to work on some kind of trans-contextual level I don't even understand yet.

** I recognize the appreciate the difference between military and civilian employment, but nevertheless the US Treasury is the sole source of his lifetime earnings.

26 August 2008

Get your pitchforks and torches, it's the Profit Goblin!

Jacob Sullum notices that California won't "Let Retailers Make Money Off Sick People." California Attorney General Jerry Brown has decided that medical marijuana dispensaries may only operate on a non-profit basis. No word yet on whether the hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and technicians of the state will continue to be allowed to cruelly extract a profit from the ill and infirm.

Stories like this are why I'll never fit in with either primary American political party. The Republicans are perfectly willing to throw federalism and social freedom out the window in the interests of imposing their temperance on the people of California, as DEA raids continue unabated. Democrats, meanwhile, are willing to defenestrate rational self interest and economic freedom in the interests of stamping out capitalism wherever it rears it's head.

Medical marijuana may be the one single policy California does right, and it screws it up by getting all skeeved out by capitalism. Is it any wonder the hagiographies of Democrats always treat private sector careers as mercifully brief and unfortunate diversions on the way to more fulfilling public sector work?

The Democrat's Monomyth

Says David Weigel on DNC night 1:
"The narrative for both Obamas treats profits and business as malicious careers, swampy pathes not taken, and lifelong political rent-seeking as the highest form of living."
I always thought that was the narrative of the Left in general.

Both Clintons, Teddy Kennedy, Al Gore, Joe Biden. Did any of them have a private sector, profit-generating career before taking the taxpayer's shilling? A night shift at a regional newspaper here, a law firm sinecure there. That's hardly working 'neath the wheels.

25 August 2008

The Battle of Friedman

(This was supposed to post while I was traveling last week, but didn't. So here it is.)

Since "the battle over the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago has gone mainstream," according to this Free Exchange report on this Thomas Frank piece in the WSJ, it might be time to post this response to all the anti-Friedmanites, from Chicago faculty member John Cochrane. It's got to be one of the best fiskings on the year.

(Background, from Cochrane: "A group of University of Chicago faculty wrote a petition to our President opposing the foundation of a Milton Friedman Institute to support economic research. The full letter is here. These are my personal comments on that letter.")

The signatories of the initial letter of complaint, mostly devotees of the Arts and the Letters, should know better than to vomit up such drivel onto the internet when dealing with a bunch of logically trained people like Dr Cochrane and other economists. This PoMo PC Kumbaya language might fly in the International Journal of the Oppression Studies, but you're starting a debate with rigorous minds, not writing an article called "The Socio-psychological Effects of the Oligarchic Patriarchy on Representations of the Banana Slug in Poetry and Film: A Holistic Analysis." You don't walk into a room full of lawyers and start mouthing off about that one 1st amendment case you read about in Rolling Stone. You don't walk into the IT room and start blathering about how tablet PCs are the wave of the future because you happened to see a story about them in Time. You're just asking for trouble.

This kind of mealy-mouthed claptrap is well suited to posting on gallery walls next to chocolate-covered foam-rubber maquettes of Joseph Stalin's younger son's cocktail shaker in an attempt to explain how Vasily Dzhugashvili's imprisonment and alcoholism relate to the artist's life as a neo-Maoist, paraplegic, lesbian, Iranian refugee. Such language is in no way suitable for holding actual debates with other people, or for advancing ideas of any substance in any way. Don't show up on the internet if this hogwash is the best you're packing.



Update: Tyler Cowen on "The new 'Chicago Boys:'"
The number of Chileans who studied Ph.d. economics at the University of Chicago in the 1990s: 4

The number of Chileans studying there since 2001: 10

According to this interesting article, studying at Chicago no longer bears the stigma of association with the Pinochet regime. Nor do those who study at Chicago aspire to be hard-core market reformers. This is a sign of how "normal" Chile has become, and also a sign of how "normal" the University of Chicago has become, but most of all the former.


24 August 2008

Since I'm Flying Today...

Here's Bruce Schneier on the latest follies of the TSA, including breaking planes (yes, the same planes they're supposed to be keeping safe), harassing people, and being outsmarted by middle names.  As Suetonius says, "I wouldn’t trust DHS to protect the recipe for the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices, let alone keep me safe from terrorists."

22 August 2008

Tilt/Shift

One of the elements in the set of {"things which I prefer in analog to digital form"} is tilt-shift photography.* Here's a set on flickr with some great examples taken around DC:


And here are some that I saw last winter in Santa Fe at the wonderful TAI Gallery by Naoki Honjo.


These are really eye catching blown up to large format. He also had some great night shots of construction sites, but I can't find any online.


* The cardinality of this set is very low.

21 August 2008

The Hot Stinking Breath of the Id Monster

The Incredible Pull Of Alpha Males « Roissy in DC: (Warning, rough language)
You don’t like that I say this? It gets your panties in a wad? F--k you and your misplaced empathy. F--k you and your phonyf--k indignation. Especially f--k you and your happy sappy shifting morality hands across humanity meek shall inherit the karmic magical moral comeuppance excuse mongering rationalizing hypocritical there but for the grace of no one but myself go I virtue on the cheap fantasyland pissant pawn of your selfish gene replicating cog in the bloodsoaked gears of the amoral universal machine bulls--t. Stare into the gaping maw of the id monster motherf--kers because I am rubbing your face in its hot stinking breath.
(Edited for all you people reading this at work.)

That's such a paragraph that it doesn't even matter what he's talking about, but in case you're curious it's John Edwards getting away with his affair.

20 August 2008

I would have accepted "So we can have chocolate milk in the drinking fountains."

Here's Gene Healy on McCain and Obama on why they want to be President. He has much more, but these seem to be the salient sentences from each.

Here's Obama:
And I want to be president because that’s the America I believe in and I feel like that American dream is slipping away.
He believes in an America in which he gets to be President? That's so Naderesque.

And McCain:
I want to inspire a generation of Americans to serve a cause greater than their self-interest.
Then pick up some pom-poms and start cheer leading, Stuart Smalley. Have our Presidents become so good at preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution that they're going to become our life coaches too?

"Yes, Prime Minister" on School Choice




(From Tertium Quids, via Cafe Hayek)

The LA Agenda

I am headed out this morning to the LA region for Summer 2008 Wedding Event #3. On the agenda:
Location: LACMA.
Objective: Catch the inaugural show at the new Broad Contemporary.

Location: A street corner
Objective: Eat an illicit bacon dog, just to show The Man that yesterday's pork product-related thuggery will not deter me.

Location: Dinah's Original Pancake & Chicken House.
Objective: Eat lingonberry pancakes in homage to the nihilist faux kidnappers of Le Grande Lebowski.

Location: Various Santa Ynez valley wineries
Objective: Taste wine.

Location: An undisclosed church and a country club in Camarillo
Objective: Attend the wedding ceremony and reception.
Is it sad that 60% of my itinerary revolves around eating and drinking? I vote no.

I have a few small things scheduled to post while I'm gone, otherwise updating will be light.

19 August 2008

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a rational alcohol policy proposal!

College Presidents Want Lower Drinking Age:
College presidents from about 100 of the nation's best-known universities, including Duke, Dartmouth, and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age to 18 from 21, saying current laws actually encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.

The movement called the Amethyst Initiative began quietly recruiting presidents more than a year ago to provoke national debate about the drinking age.
Hear, hear.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving says lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes. It accuses the presidents of misrepresenting science and looking for an easy way out of an inconvenient problem. MADD officials are even urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.
Of course they would. But then again MADD also claims that not getting the recommended dose of riboflavin causes fatal car crashes as does not washing thoroughly behind your ears once a day.* MADD has become an all-purpose prohibitionist group. Even their founder thinks they've gone off the deep end.
Research has found more than 40% of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependance. [sic]
Have you ever seen one of these surveys? They include things like "Have you ever overslept after a night of drinking?" and "Has a relative ever expressed concerned with your drinking?" That means if your mother ever says "Gosh, you seem to have had a lot of beer last night," even if her idea of "a lot" is "more than one," then a relative has expressed concern and you could be one of the 40% of students who report one symptom of alcohol abuse. These things are written and administered by people whose mission is to curb alcohol abuse so they define the problem in hugely broad terms to beef up their own raison d'etre. Just look at how they provide statistics about how many people have one symptom of alcohol dependence, instead of how many people are actually dependent on alcohol. I bet 75% of the population has one symptom of depression. That doesn't mean 75% of the country is depressed.

But the statement makes clear the signers think the current law isn't working, citing a "culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking," and noting that while adults under 21 can vote and enlist in the military, they "are told they are not mature enough to have a beer." Furthermore, "by choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."
I think fake IDs are a regulatory matter rather than an ethical one and I don't really care if people respect the law. (At least not until "the law" begins comporting itself with a bit of dignity.) But make no mistake: nothing breeds contempt for authority on campuses, be they high school or college, as much as anti-drinking policies.

In related news, here's some info on UMD's curious support for collusion amongst local bars.



* So made up you didn't even have to check the footnote. But give them a few years. I'm sure they'll publish these studies eventually.



Update: C.D. Mote, president of UMD College Park has signed on to the initiative. Still missing: Notre Dame's John Jenkins. I'm not holding my breath. (Via DCist)

Oh Noes! Low Prices!: The Birth of the College Park Beer Cartel


Background: one College Park bar, the Thirsty Turtle, occasionally offered 25 cent drinks, I believe as part of a progressive happy hour. The other bar owners were not happy with the stiff competition.
The City of College Park hosted a meeting between bar owners, elected officials, police officers, representatives of the county liquor board, university officials and student leaders to discuss the Thirsty Turtle's 25-cent rail drinks, city Public Services Director Bob Ryan said.

Ryan said state Sens. Jim Rosapepe and Paul Pinsky and Prince George's County Councilman Eric Olson received "concerns" the low prices may be encouraging students to excessive or binge drinking, but the three legislators could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The bar owners then "voluntarily agreed" to a $1 minimum charge for a shot, mixed drink or 16-ounce beer, as suggested at the meeting by R.J. Bentley's owner John Brown, Ryan said. [1]

Here we go with coerced volunteering again. This was as voluntary as paying "insurance" to your friendly neighborhood protection racket. (Somebody has been listening to too many Harry Reid tax proposals.)
But although city officials have stressed that the price floor was purely voluntary, a sign that had been posted at the Thirsty Turtle explaining the new high prices suggested that the city had forced their decision. [2]
The Thirsty Turtle was recently closed for about 18 months due to scuffle with regulators over their liquor license. So this is not the first time they've been bullied by city, state and university officials.
"Some business owners thought a quarter a beer was unreasonable and irresponsible," Ryan said. "It was peer pressure, where responsible business owners put pressure on other business owners." [3]
"Peer pressure?" Bullshit. It's a shakedown. Besides, peer pressure is between peers. It doesn't involve calling in the police and the liquor board and the town council. And isn't peer pressure supposed to be a bad thing? I grew up watching all kinds of DARE videos where Nancy Reagan and a couple of puppets told me to resist peer pressure at all costs. This is legitimized collusion; a government-backed cartel, plain and simple.
Ryan said any pressure put on the Thirsty Turtle was not from the city, but from the state legislators - whom city officials said promised to legislate an alcohol price floor if one was not reached voluntarily - and from the owners of other bars. [4]
Get your stories straight, city officials:
No ordinances or legislation has been passed to enforce the minimum, but [City Manager Joe] Nagro said that if the bars were to violate it, the city would not rule out pursuing state legislation to regulate prices. [5]
So there's confusion about who's expressing "concerns" about low prices. Is there anybody in the audience who doesn't think it's the other bar owners? And is there anybody else who thinks that the leftist, wowser administrators from the university, city and county bureaucracies are at all sympathetic to low drink prices? Those people already (a) hate students, and (b) hate commerce and low prices. This is a perfect excuse for them to intrude and set a price floor.
College Park officials hope an agreement between the city and local bar owners, setting a $1 minimum for all drink specials, will help to cut down on incidents at bars. (gazette) [6]
Was there any evidence presented that bars with sub-$1 drinks had more incidents? I doubt anybody involved is quantitative enough to collect this data, but even if they did I doubt it would show any trend.
John McGorty, an inspector for the Prince George's County Liquor and Licensing Commission, said the new agreement will help the bars encourage responsible drinking among patrons.
[...]
"This is heading it off at the pass," he said. "When you take cheap drink specials and college kids looking to have a good time, the result isn't always great. Anything we can do to be more responsible, I'm all for that." [7]
In order to head something off it has to have not happened yet or be getting worse. Once again, do we have any indication that the Thirsty Turtle had more problems as a result of their cheaper product? And as cash strapped as students are, is a one dollar beer really going to be keeping them sober and responsible? Especially when they can have drinks before going to the bar that only set them back 20 or 30 cents?

The only people in any of the articles I read who made sense were students and alumni, and they all thought this price floor was ludicrous.
"When you have two gas stations on a corner, they can't decide to set the price at X number of dollars per gallon," said student David Gordon. "To me, it's the same thing. The other bars around here weren't happy, so they all got together and tried to set a minimum drink price." [8]
Spot on, Mr. Gordon, spot on. I was halfway through writing up a gas station hypothetical when I saw this, too. This guy understands this better than any of the administrators quoted. Even if this was voluntary, it's still a cartel. The fact that it isn't voluntary just makes it all the more disgusting. If the product in question was gas or bread or airline tickets then all this leftists would be wailing about the greedy businessmen squeezing an extra dollar out of poor students. But because it's beer the State feels justified in encouraging businesses to collude against the interest of consumers. Disgusting.

Here's more student wisdom:
"I mean, just because it's 75 cents, that doesn't make people who don't drink drink," said student Tammie An. "If people are going to drink, they're going to just pay for it no matter how expensive it is."

"When I came to the bar and it was 25 cents, I drank the same amount as before [when drinks were a dollar]," said student Luke Johnson. "It's just I was able to leave after only spending a couple dollars." [9]
The amount you drink at undergrad places like this is limited by how long it takes you to wade through the pack of people at the bar, which is often five or six people deep. The primary thing holding people back from getting stupid drunk at these places is that it takes too long, not that they can't manage to scrounge up pocket change for cheap domestic lager. And even if it did hit them in the wallet too hard there are a half dozen liquor stores within three miles of the Thirsty Turtle where you can buy beer at a rate of about 20 cents per.

Every non-student quoted in these articles sounds like a stuffed shirt PR flack, throwing out illogical platitudes about how we need to do this For The Children. Do these professionals know that a bunch of supposedly reprehensible binging-drinking drunkards, aka students, make them seem like total fools?
"I was a student once and I was poor, and I was always happy to get things cheaper," [University Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Warren Kelley] said. "But we have a lot of evidence that cheap, cheap alcohol leads to a lot of problems." [10]
There's also a lot of evidence that it's better to have people drinking in public, where there are police and publicans looking out for dangerous behavior, rather than having them drinking in their apartments, houses and dorm rooms before going to bars or at parties. But his real concern isn't students' safety, it's university liability, so why should they give a hoot if they push binge drinking out of their view?

Through all three of these pieces the reporters kept writing about bar owners, plural, deciding to raise their prices. One bar owner raised his prices, the other two already priced their drinks at or above that level. This wasn't some friendly consensus everyone adopted together. One business was pressured into raising prices at the behest of two others. (Yes there are only four student bars run by three owners for a campus of 25K undergraduates. How boring.) This is just a sanctioned cartel, organized at the behest of a couple of anti-competitive businesses who ran to the State for help and found a bunch of nosy, power hungry politicians who think they know what's best for a group of adult citizens than the citizens do themselves.



[1] The Diamondback
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] The Gazette
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid
[8] NBC4
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid #1

Three Good Sentences

From Patrick Ruffini:
Liberalism is built around sacrificing lower prices for social goods like the environment, health care, or economic equality. (If this seems charitable, this is because this is how liberals themselves would describe it.) This is the underpinning of their hatred of low-cost Wal-Mart, their thinly-veiled sense of satisfaction with high energy prices, and their consistent opposition to lower taxes.
Well said. I would just clarify that it's about sacrificing other people's low prices, not just your own.

18 August 2008

More Harrison Bergeron Thoughts

A couple of days ago I had the following to say regarding a new film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's short story Harrison Bergeron:
I also have strange feelings about the source material. I really enjoy it, but I know that Vonnegut intended it to be read in an entirely different way than I (and most other people) read it. Then I remember that Vonnegut was a crotchety old socialist, and I cease to care. Anyway, the trailer makes it seem as though rookie director Chandler Tuttle is siding more with the William F. Buckley interpretation than the author's.
Commenter SF asked me what I meant about Vonnegut's intentions. I'm no literary critic (that's really the Special Lady Friend's thing) but I'll try and elaborate anyway. Bear in mind I haven't actually read Harrison Bergeron in about a decade.

Bergeron has come to be read by most people, myself included, as a critique of leftist desires for equality of outcomes. Thematically I lump it in with the Rush song which I used for the previous post's title, "The Trees," which tells the story of maple trees so envious at their taller oak neighbors that they had them all chopped down in the name of equality. ("And the trees are all kept equal, by hatchet, axe, and saw.") Bergeron's society operates the same way, by tearing down the more capable in order to level the field. So far this shouldn't be too surprising.

What makes me think that this isn't what Vonnegut really meant is the ideological space between him and Neil Peart, drummer of Rush and writer of "The Trees." Vonnegut by all accounts was a staunch socialist who had a bit of a crush on Eugene V. Debs, while Peart is a libertarian who got himself in a lot of hot water back in the 70's for citing Ayn Rand as an influence in Rush's first album's liner notes. I just don't see them as two people who would see eye to eye on this.

So if Vonnegut didn't mean Bergeron to be interpreted the way I do, what did he intend? My best guess is that he was trying to make fun of what he saw as the right wing's misrepresentations of what his fellow travelers meant by equality. I see him saying something like "Those silly capitalists, they don't even understand equality. They think we mean something foolish like this, and they try and scare everyone with stories of how we leftists hate people who excel." I think Vonnegut was trying to take right wing fears of socialism and make them so over the top that they'd appear foolish, thus clearing the way for what he thought were legitimate equalization of outcomes, like nationalized health care.*


In Vonnegut's favor, socialists have rarely concerned themselves with equalizing the three traits (strength, intelligence and beauty) that Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers concerns herself with most. This is evident by the amount of money the Soviets and Communist Chinese pour(ed) into their national ballets, Olympic athletes, chess players, etc.

On the other hand Bergeron was originally published in a science fiction magazine, so it's not much of a stretch to conclude that piling weights on the shoulders of the strong should be taken a bit more metaphorically.

And on the gripping hand, Vonnegut has probably never attended a town council meeting in Takoma Park or a School Board meeting in Montgomery County MD, where such preposterous notions of equality would find a fair bit of support. Montgomery County Public Schools, for instance, outlawed valedictorian addresses and class rank because they thought it wasn't very egalitarian with respect to the people at the bottom of the distribution. They may not have kept the people at the top from being smart, but they did try hard to deny that they were any smarter than anyone else. MCPL furthermore subjected me to a schooling in which dodge ball was banned because the less athletic kids had their feelings hurt, and forced me to attend innumerable awards ceremonies in which every single student received an award. This became truly farcical at one ceremony at the conclusion of 8th grade when they had to dig so deep into their bag of false praise that they lauded some children for showing up to the award ceremony itself.

It isn't just over-funded school districts that play these kind of leveling games though. Any time people get their boxers in a bunch about relative wealth distributions without regard to absolute levels of wealth they're implicitly advocating pulling down the top in order to level the field. Any "millionaire's surcharge" or "windfall profit tax" is an explicit endorsement of the same behavior.

Vonnegut was trying to create not a satire of Marxism, but of right wing views of Marxism. I think he falls flat, and was doomed to fall flat, because it's almost impossible to satirize the horror of Marxist regimes. We're supposed to look at smart people being forced to wear buzzers in their ears to distract them and think that it's silly. I find that impossible to do in a world in which intellectuals have been marched off to Cultural Revolution labor camps (among others) for the crime of being educated.

At the end of the day I think Bergeron has ended up like a less successful version of "Born in the U.S.A." which seems to be a moderate indictment of American society, despite it having been co-opted by a lot of nationalists who don't pay that much attention to lyrics. I say it's been less successful because I think there's still a significant chunk of the population that listens to "Born in the U.S.A." and hears the critique Springsteen intended, while I think almost everyone probably read Bergeron after it was re-printed in National Review and as such reads it in the way WFB rather than Vonnegut did.




* I really have no evidence that Vonnegut supported nationalized health care, but it seems like he would have. I'm not interested in looking for actual citations for any of this, so let's just move along, shall we?

Heads You Whine, Tails You Gripe

Coyote Blog: A Brief Observation on Pricing:
Michael Cannon writes about the new trend in airline pricing to charge extra fees for different services (ranging from sodas to checked baggage). I have seen several writers of the progressive ilk all up in arms about these extra fees. Which in my mind confirms that there is no foundational position among progressives on such matters, only opportunistic attacks on corporations for whatever they happen to be doing. They want air travel pricing to be bundled into one rate, covering all potential services one may or may not use. But wait, they want cable TV pricing to be unbundled, with a la carte pricing rather than one rate so viewers can pay for only what they use.
The next time someone complains about something political or economic ask yourself what they would say if the situation was the exact opposite. A lot of times they'd be making the exact same complaint. In this case, if we had all grown up with a la carte air travel and airlines started moving to all inclusive pricing I'm pretty sure you'd get the same grouching from the same people:  "Why should I pay extra so some Ugly American can pack three suitcases full of XXL denim shorts and Mickey Mouse sweatshirts?  I don't want to subsidize their lack of packing discipline.  And why are they making me pay for a blanket whether I want one or not?  I don't even use airline blankets.  I bring my own locally handmade, non-allergenic hemp blanket whenever I travel.  I only want to pay for what I use."  Most of these people just have a deep suspicion of any private transaction where money changes hand, and want an excuse to excoriate anyone who might be making a profit.

When affluent white people were moving out of cities, it was white flight, and it was supposedly a Very Bad Thing. Now they're moving back, and it's called gentrification, and that's also a Very Bad Thing. When Walmart or Exxon make lots of money, and that's just unacceptable. American Airlines or GM lose lots of money, and that's also just unacceptable. When interest rates are low people rend garments because this spells trouble for those saving for retirement. When interest rates are high they tear their hair because this is very bad for young people trying to buy their first home or pay down student loans. When rich people in Southern California contracted for private wild fire protection people complained because they didn't want the rich getting any better service just because they had money. When those citizens were forced to use public fire departments the same critics complained because they didn't want the fire department to use its resources on people who could afford their own protection. When Starbucks opens more locations people complain that they're spreading the homogenizing American monoculture. When they close stores lots of the same people complain that they're laying people off.  The same people who think Walmart is a virus will be furious when Walmart eventually falls behind the curve of creative destruction and starts shuttering locations, take my word for it.

This is why I'm skeptical of progressives who support congestion fees and various other road pricing mechanism even though I tend to like them (even though they aren't really in my best interest). I'd wager that 95% of the leftist support for congestion fees, etc. is out of a desire to stick it to those nasty, polluting car owners rather than due to the appeal of market-based rationing. If you asked all those same people if they also supported using market pricing for mass transit fares (which would be so, so simple) they'd be horrified. Why is one type of transportation amenable to pricing and the others aren't? For that matter why the desire for price-rationing on roads but not for water or electricity?

17 August 2008

Facts: Confounding Marxists since 1867

dispatches from TJICistan » Blog Archive » conversation at Starbucks
Dude in Che shirt: [waiting for coffee]

TJIC: Did you know that Che hated blacks and gays? And, also, he murdered a lot of people?

Dude: Uh…there are lots of opinions.

TJIC: True. There are also some facts.
Well done, sir.  Well done.

(Get your own socialist mocking t-shirt here.)

Confusion

For the last five or six days there have been two refrigerator-sized HEPA filters camped out in my apartment's lobby, humming away 24-7.  ("Humming" is a bit gentle.  The lobby sounds more like an Me 262 test facility).  I'm not sure whether to be pleased that my air is being made cleaner, or upset that it was apparently dirty enough that management was obligated to give it some extra filtering.  Is this a good thing?  Do I add it to the pro or con list for renewing my lease?  Both?  I'm leaning con...

Bonus content:  Check out the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on HEPA filters: "A high efficiency particulate air or HEPA filter is a type of high-efficiency air filter."  Wow.  That really clears a lot up for me.

Another Cantankerous Olympics Post

I've had Olympics coverage on pretty much all day and night for the last three days or so, when track competition began. So far I've managed to see some qualifiers for the men's 1500m, men's 100m,* men's 400 hurdles, and women's 400m trials. I've also seen two minute recaps of women's shot put and pole vault. All told it was about 90 minutes of coverage.

In that same time I've seen 7 interviews with Béla Károlyi, 6 Dara Tores human interest stories and 21 puff pieces about Michael Phelps. Don't get me wrong, Phelps is amazing. He's the bastard child of Jim Thorpe and Jaime Sommers. The best ever. The final cylon.  But I get it already. And who doesn't? Is there anyone in the country that wasn't impressed by Phelps, but is going to come to their senses after one more inspiring montage of his post-race celebrations and hugs from his mother? Enough already. Unless you're going to reveal he's the secret identity of Namor the Sub-Mariner I don't want to hear another word about Michael Phelps.

All night Friday NBC kept prosing that they were going to replay men's shot put, but instead I got 4 of those 7 Bela Karolyi interviews and about 45 minutes of Shawn Johnson's incisors. But not a single shot was put. I did not get my promised shot putting. I am grumpy.

Saturday: hours of team handball. And badminton. And table tennis. Most Americans probably don't even know what team handball is.  Why?  Why, NBC?  Why handball?  I kind of like handball, but why?  Why handball and not long jump?

And of course NBC used some worthless Microsoft Silverlight system for their streaming video, and it's completely bollocksed.  Grrrrrrrr.



* How fast would Usain Bolt have been if he had actually, you know, tried?  I'm so psyched to see him in the 200.

16 August 2008

Is that salvia? Or basil? Oh, it doesn't matter. Book him, Dano!

Continuing this week's theme of authority figures (so far congressmen and royalty) mouthing off about things they don't understand, we have the Bismark, ND police entering the ring to show that cops also like to do their jobs without actually understanding what their jobs are.
When Bismarck, North Dakota, police found eight ounces of the newly illegal psychedelic herb Salvia divinorum in Kenneth Rau's house last April, they claimed it was enough for about 900 doses. Rau—who appears to be the first American prosecuted for possession of salvia, which remains legal in most of the country—therefore faced a charge of possessing salvia with intent to deliver.

[...] The prosecution admitted that police had overestimated the number of salvia doses in Rau's possession by a factor of more than 100.
"I know I was going 2,000 mph in a school zone, officer. I guess I just misjudged BY A FACTOR OF ONE HUNDRED. Can't you let me off with a warning?" Yeah. That would work.

Class A felony, class C felony, what's the difference? Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. I suppose we could ask the cops to figure out what the guy has done wrong before prosecuting him, but where's the fun in that? Just throw the book at him, because he's a dirty hippie drug fiend who's trying to tun our children's brains into fried eggs, right?

(That prosecutorial admission was made, by the way, fairly late into proceedings, after a plea bargain had already been offered based on the erroneous felony distribution charges.)
The Drug War Chronicle notes another example of the drug cops' ignorance about drugs: Rau was initially charged with possession of psilocybin because he had, in addition to the salvia, Amanita muscaria (a.k.a. fly agaric) mushrooms. Police later dropped that charge because they "figured out that amanita does not contain psilocybin."
(1) I could have told you that even though I neither take mushrooms nor am in charge of stopping other people from doing the same. (2) You can figure this out with 15 seconds and a link to Wikipedia. But I suppose the fuzz can't be bothered with that, because they've got bad guys to bust, baby! Spread it on! Yeah! USA! USA! USA!

Does it strike anyone else as odd that it is illegal to posses Salvia divinorum in North Dakota, but legal to possess Amanita muscaria? Seeing as how the later is toxic and the former isn't, I mean. At what point did the North Dakota legislature decide to outlaw the safer drug? Is there any rational basis for this decision, besides the fact that there have been sky-is-falling media stories about salvia but not fly agaric?

Growing up with Hayden Christensen

This Peter Suderman post made me realize that I might be in the trailing edge of Star Wars fans. I had about seven or eight years between when I got into Star Wars and when the first prequel came out. That's almost a decade for the good stuff to sink in before the certified knock offs showed up. A kid coming up now is surrounded by all the cartoons and midichlorians and Jar-Jar and such. They're being exposed to more bad (or at least kitchy) content than good material.

I was already hooked when I had to start dealing with whiny, self-indulgent Anakin. They have no such immunity.  This is not to say that kids these days don't like Star Wars. But I have the feeling that if you grow up surrounded by all the dreck they've been putting out for the last decade, in addition to the vintage good stuff, you'll be a Star Wars fan like I used to be a G.I.Joe fan. It's fun, you enjoyed it, but it isn't going to leave much of a lasting impression.

Suderman also quotes the following, which I admit posed a bit of a predicament for me:

So let’s do the math: [The Clone Wars] is the seventh Star Wars movie to be released in theaters. I love two of them — Star Wars (the one released in 1977 that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, not the one released in 1997 when Greedo shot first) and Empire — think one is good (Jedi), think one is bad (Revenge of the Sith), two are putrid (The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones) and another I refuse to see. How can I call myself a fan when I only like 29% of the product?
I'll probably end up Netflixing The Clone Wars and but not liking, so I'm in pretty much the same camp.  I guess my only response is that I like the Star Wars universe, the concept of Star Wars, the idea of Star Wars, more than the actual films that bear the Star Wars logo.  It feels like a cop-out, but it's all I've got.

15 August 2008

By Hatchet, Axe and Saw


Harrison Bergeron is coming to the big screen.  See the (beautifully scored) trailer here.

I'm usually skeptical of feature films based on short stories but I've got my fingers crossed for this one. Perhaps it too will be "an exception to the acceptable."

I also have strange feelings about the source material.  I really enjoy it, but I know that Vonnegut intended it to be read in an entirely different way than I (and most other people) read it.  Then I remember that Vonnegut was a crotchety old socialist, and I cease to care.  Anyway, the trailer makes it seem as though rookie director Chandler Tuttle is siding more with the William F. Buckley interpretation than the author's.

(Via Jacob Grier; subject line)

Negative Anti-competitiveness

Above the fold | Free exchange | Economist.com
And American Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia are once more trying to link their networks in a joint marketing scheme. Previously rejected, the deal is now expected to receive official approval, given new open skies arrangements that make the combination less anti-competitive. Richard Branson remains unhappy with the prospect, however, and has reportedly sent letters to both John McCain and Barack Obama asking them to use their power as almost presidents to stop the deal.
False. The new "open sky arrangements" define the combination to be less anti-competitive, they do not actually make it so. There is a difference between regulations and reality. Flying routes into your competitors' territory and increasing marketing is actually more competitive and helps consumers. Since the initial proposal had an anti-competitive value of zero it can not become less anti-competitive when the rules change. Richard Branson can go cry onto his spaceship blueprints. Quit trying to get (not yet) elected officials to fix things for you because you're afraid you can't keep up with the competition, you pansy.

The Christian Novel

Megan McArdle asks why popular evangelical Christian fiction is so awful:
I don't think they're bad because of the religious aspects; though I'm not myself a believer, I have a healthy respect for other peoples' faith. Besides, if I can suspend disbelief for Dark Knight, I think I can manage a few demons and angels.

The problem is, the writing is dreadful. The Left Behind series reads like it was written by a fourteen year old B student with a HUGE crush on Jesus Christ. To call the characters cardboard cutouts would be an insult to paper dolls, which are vastly more realistic than anything created by Messrs Lehaye and Jenkins. The dialogue reads like it's been triple-starched. And the plot belongs in a churchyard.

[...]

There's no reason this should be so; religious faith is one of the great human dramas. Nor is it that they are pitched to a general audience; there are a lot of great mass-market storytellers. So why haven't better writers emerged in this genre?
The first comment sums up most of the rest:
The Christian Market has demonstrated that they'll buy pretty much anything based on worldview rather than on quality.
While true, I think this only explains why there is lots of cruft littered around, not why even the best selling books are horrible. Maybe anyone can move books by slapping Jesus on the cover and that results in lots of bad writing, but that's not the same as describing why there isn't any good writing. If you have twenty books with the same Rah-Rah, Go Jesus! world view, at least one ought to be decently written, and that one ought to attract at least a little more attention than the others. After all, religion is "one of the great human dramas." It should attract good writers because it's good material. There's a lot of potential there.

I think the reason is more closely tied to the adjective the commenter left out. These books are not appealing to Christians in general. They're appealing to evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants.

You don't see a lot of good evangelical fiction for the same reason you don't see a lot of love stories published in which boy meets girl, boy and girl get married, and boy and girl live happily ever after. That's the way it's supposed to go. In a way, that's the narrative status quo. And it's boring. You need to do things differently for that story to be interesting.

But I don't think it's really possible to shake up the narrative in Christian literature that much and have it remain appealing to the megachurch crowd that you need to market it to, because that's not a culture that values a lot of creative input when it comes to religious themes. The stories are all set already. A said B at location C, and Lo! after D days E happened. If you do X, then Y will happen to you. There's no room for E' or for Z happening instead of Y. These things are all already established and immutable in the minds of the audience, so the author doesn't have a lot of room to do interesting things with them. There's no room for speculation or personal interpretation. Furthermore the inclusion of syntactic elements like a wizard or a talking animal are going to draw protests even if the semantics of the story remains thoroughly Christian, so there isn't as much wiggle room in the presentation either.

I think this necessary distinction between Christian and evangelical Christian are why the examples left in the comments of good Christian fiction (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madelein L'Engle, and I would add G.K.Chesterton) consist of three Catholics and an Episcopalian. Both of those traditions are far, far less literal. There's much more room for an author to draw their own theses. But these stories are never going to appeal to Michael Megachurch or Polly Pentecostal specifically because the author gets to present their own vision, and not the One Established Truth they are looking for.

I also think this is why a lot of fiction I like which takes on religious themes are written by, shall we say, unbelievers. There is good fiction being written about religion, but as often as not we classify it as irreligious and exclude it from consideration. Philip Pullman, Tom Robbins and Robert Heinlein all wrote about the great human drama of religion, and I think they're good at it for the same reasons that good love stories are written by people who've had their hearts broken and good war stories are written by soldiers who didn't particularly care for war. I'm sure there were plenty of Russian novels being written about how great Communism was, and I'm also sure they were all horrible compared to Solzhenitsyn. Sometimes outsiders and dissidents can see things more clearly and present things more passionately than those on the inside.




Addendum: One of McArdle's commenters, Elizabeth, mentioned that if you want good apocalyptic fiction you should forget about LaHaye and Jenkins and pick up Pratchett and Gaiman's Good Omens: The Nicce and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. I whole heartedly agree, although it would make most Left Behind readers' heads explode. This passage has stuck with me since I first read it when I was twelve or thirteen:
God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of his own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a dealer who won't tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.
I also like Crowley's use of traffic jams to sew evil in the hearts of men. I think about that every time I get on 495.

14 August 2008

John Swarbrick as Condotierro

From The Sports Economist: Beijing is experiencing low (or perhaps negative) economic benefit from hosting the Olympics. I'm not surprised; these things never work out as planned.

Stories like this are why I question John Swarbrick as ND's new Athletic Director. His main qualifications for the job seem to be years of bringing sporting events to Indianapolis in the interest of economic development. I shudder to think that he was under the impression that whole time that he was actually succeeding in boosting Indianapolis' economy. If I could get the guy alone in a room and have him admit that sporting events don't actually help a city then I'd feel a lot better. Maybe he was just doing all that because that's what he could get paid to do. Maybe he didn't actually believe in the cause. Maybe he's just a mercenary. The best I can hope for is that he was a hired gun doing a job his clients insisted on even though he knew it to not be in their best interests.

Megan McArdle as comic book character

Megan McArdle is excited by a New York Magazine story that lists the protagonist of Brian Wood's excellent Local as, well, Megan McArdle. Local is excellent, unfortunately for Miss McArdle the character's name is actually Megan McKeenan.


However, this is a great opportunity to get the ball rolling on the Radley Balko family of comic books:
Balko already has an awesome superhero code name: "The Agitator." How cool is that? And imagine the rogue's gallery you could set up: Steven Hayne. Joe Arpaio.* Elliot Spitzer. Whole armies of mindless SWAT foot soldiers for him to battle. You could do special team-up issues with the staff of Cato. Guest appearances by Jane Galt. You could have spin-offs like Nick Gillespie: Agent of R.E.A.S.O.N. (Tell me Gillespie's leather jacket wouldn't play.)
Maybe if Megan wants her own comic book character we can start with Who Is Jane Galt?: The Adventures of Megan McArdle, and branch out from there.

13 August 2008

Prince Charles, Lord of the Luddites

Hit & Run - His Royal Highness, the Dunce of Wales, Speaks Against Biotech Crops - Reason Magazine

Yesterday I noticed Representatives Markey and Eshoo making fools of themselves by authoring legislation regarding the Internet, an entity they seem entirely ignorant of. Today Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor* is mouthing off about something he doesn't understand, genetically engineered crops.** Frankly I shouldn't be surprised. The role of Royalty over the last century seems to consist entirely of sitting under canopies at genteel sporting events on the one hand, and mouthing off about shit they don't understand on the other.

Let's pick this apart a bit, shall we?
In his most outspoken intervention on the issue of GM food, the Prince said that multi-national companies were conducting an experiment with nature which had gone "seriously wrong"
Which experiment would that be, Chuck? That one they did on Isla Nublar?

And why are you specifically blaming multi-national companies, Charlie? Why not intra-national, 100% British companies? Perhaps because you can not only harness the people's Luddite fears, but also xenophobia and jingoism? England Prevails, eh, Charles?
The Prince, in an exclusive interview with the Daily Telegraph, also expressed the fear that food would run out because of the damage being wreaked on the earth's soil by scientists' research.
Someone has been watching Silent Running too many times. And that someone remains ignorant of the fact that GM crops reduce soil run off and the need for fertilizers.
"Why else are we facing all these challenges, climate change and everything?"
Ummm, because of gay marriage, of course. Or maybe because God is punishing us for not wearing enough flag lapel pins. The jury's still out. Why do politicians feel compelled to link absolutely everything to their personal cause du jour? It's only a matter of time before I hear someone try to explain Russian imperialism through the lens of restricted stem cell research.
"That would be the absolute destruction of everything... and the classic way of ensuring there is no food in the future," he said.
Classic implies that this has happened before. When was the last food shortage resulting from genetic engineering? And when was the last time the British government created an artificial shortage of food? It's okay, Chucky, keep mouthing off about food shortages. The British Crown has never overseen catastrophic famines after all. Who's the bigger food threat, Monsanto or Lord Trevelyan?
"What we should be talking about is food security not food production - that is what matters and that is what people will not understand.
Yeah, I'm sure that's what matters to people who are starving. These three random Thais have more sense than Greenpeace or you.
Small farmers, in particular, would be the victims of "gigantic corporations" taking over the mass production of food.
Help! Help! We're being assaulted by economies of scale! Stop being so efficient, "gigantic corporations," it's not scenic! We want little fields with thatched cottages and oxen and dry-laid stone walls, not a modern enterprises with logistics and capital equipment and managers with advanced degrees.
"I think it's heading for real disaster," he said.
Well, since Charles has such iron-clad knowledge of agronomy, I will take his prognostication seriously. Never mind, Charles doesn't know the first thing about agronomy. How about climatology? Genetics? Economics? Demography? Oh wait, he isn't an expert, he's just the product of dozens of generations of institutionalized nepotism.
"If they think this is the way to go....we [will] end up with millions of small farmers all over the world being driven off their land into unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness."
When's the last time Charles tilled a field? Farming is not something out of a Hudson River School painting. It's backbreaking work. People are voluntarily flocking to cities — excuse me, flocking to conurbations — because that's their preference. They want to escape a life of subsistence farming. I don't suppose Britain has ever forced people off land they were willingly farming, though.
The Prince of Wales's forthright comments will reopen the whole debate about GM food.
Nothing to stir debate like falsehoods and scaremongering.
His intervention comes at a critical time. There is intense pressure for more GM products, not fewer, because of soaring food costs and widespread shortages.
I'm sorry, isn't that exactly what we should expect? There's not enough food, so people look around for ways to boost production. In the process, some of them embrace scientific progress. How has the Telegraph managed to turn that into some kind of existential threat or psychological paradox?

Many scientists believe GM research is the only way to guarantee food for the world's growing population as the planet is affected by climate change.

They will be dismayed by such a high profile and controversial contribution from the Prince of Wales at such a sensitive time.

Just like I would be dismayed if everyone started paying attention to my lunatic mailman who's convinced there's a "cult of computerists" trying to invent a digital Antichrist and bring about the end of the World. Because he's about as well informed and Charlie is, and makes about as much sense when he gets to raving.

The Prince will be braced for the biggest outpouring of criticism from scientists since he accused genetic engineers of taking us into "realms that belong to God and God alone" in an article in the Daily Telegraph in 1998.

I'm sure Father Mendel would differ. As would Fr. Teilhard de Chardin. But it's good to know that Charlie is now not only acting as the arbiter of scientific truth, but of religious matters as well.

In a keynote speech last year the Prince of Wales warned that the world faces a series of natural disasters within 18 months unless a £15 billion action plan is agreed to save the world's rain forests.

Why does that sound more like a threat from some Captain Planet anti-hero than a rational scientific opinion? The existence of a plan is going to avert disasters? As in, by writing down action plans hurricanes will be stopped in their tracks? How many bullet points does the action plan need to avert these disasters? What happens if you only raise £5 billion? Do we only get a 6 month respite from the disasters? Are these going to be miscellaneous disasters, or will it be mostly earthquakes? How does brimstone fit in, if at all? This is solid Care Bear Stare politics.

Scientists claim the repeated attacks on their trials are stifling vital research to evaluate whether GM crops can reduce the cost and environmental impact of farming and whether they will grow better in harsh environments where droughts have devastated harvests.

Yes, let's stop the scientists from growing drought-resistant crops right after Charles complained that crops in India and Australia were using too much water. That's a plan only a layabout simpleton like Charles could endorse.

The end of the Hit & Run post linked above has plenty of links to reasons you should not buy into Charlie's Luddism. Learn to love biotech. It's the future whether you like it or not. And if we embrace it now, we just might be able to lift a billion people out of crippling poverty and starvation. Wouldn't that be nice?





* Petty as it may be, I refuse as a matter of principal principle to refer to him with titles, styles or honors he has not earned through his own efforts.

** I would link to the interview that Charles did with the Telegraph, but I don't link to people who do things like this: "A number of academic biologists on a agricultural listserv that I monitor are complaining that the Telegraph's editors are apparently refusing to post their comments in favor of biotech crops." [From the Hit & Run post] Screw you, Fourth Estate.