October 31, 2009

Teach Your Children Well

Brought to you by the Tax Foundation (via).

Weekend Weirdness, Volume III

We begin with a lamb jumping on a bed.  Very cute, but it comes to a strange ending.

Then, I found a delightful children's book about interspecies telepathy, and the inevitable conquest of our planet by alien retroviruses.  It's fun for the whole family!

Look out, bullies.  It's Abe Lincoln, come to kick your asses with his mad wrestling skillz.


See what can happen when those fascist zoning restrictions are lifted?  Sometimes I miss Tennessee...

This sort of thing was freaky during the campaign and it isn't any better now.  And this isn't particularly helpful, either.

The correct answer to this question is "Because ice cream has no bones."  Come on, what's the matter with you wiki-using people; do I have to do all the work around here?

Ta da!  From the dustbin of failed political slogans, I give you:  "Spinach is spinach."

In the movies, dinosaurs have a rather limited vocabulary.

I have no idea how I stumbled across Charlize Theron.  But I'm glad I did.

October 30, 2009

Perhaps The Last Word On The War On Fox

It takes about two minutes for Stewart to build up a head of steam, but once he does, everyone gets hammered here. Fox News bears the brunt of the fire, MSNBC and the Bush Administration both get a taste, but it all leads up to the Obama White House getting the coup de grâce:
And that is why I still think The Daily Show is still funnier than The Colbert Report.

Another White House War On Its Media Critics

First, it was Fox News.  But now, it's Edmunds.com.  Edmunds dared to suggest that "Cash for Clunkers" was a gigantic waste -- for every vehicle sold under the program, taxpayers paid $24,000 (more than the retail value of a lot of those vehicles).  The White House blog responded that Edmunds must have been examining car sales on Mars and contrasted Edmunds' article to "mainstream analyses."  (Edmunds replies to that claim here.)

Oh, and the Associated Press got a taste of White House rebuke, too.  But the President and his minions taking on the mainstream press is nothing new.  Taking on a used-car website, however, is really pushing the boundaries of thin-skinned message control.  And silliness.

What this proves is that literally anyone who criticizes the White House and finds any kind of an audience for it will earn the personal attention of President Obama's political staff, at minimum in the form of a sting from the White House blog.  I'm expecting my blast of Presidential rebuke any day now.

Bring it on.

October 29, 2009

Yes Drinking Water Can Kill You

Just ask the family of Jennifer Strange, who died of hyponatremia, also called "water intoxication," as a result of participating in a radio contest called "Hold Your Wee For A Wii" up in Sacramento two years ago. She was 28 when she died, and the mother of three children who are now age 13, 6, and 3. She worked as a supervisor in a radiology laboratory, where she earned about $60,000 a year.

Today, her husband William Strange, on his own behalf and as guardian ad litem for the three children, won a verdcit of just shy of sixteen and a half million dollars for the loss of William's wife Jennifer, with whom he had three children.  While this is high verdict for a death case, it is hardly out of the realm of what could be expected.  Particularly if the radio station had a doctor available to them and failed to consult one before holding a contest of this nature -- or worse yet, if it had been told of medical risks of having people drink large amounts of water quickly and ignored that advice.  Apparently, people had called in to the "on-air personalities" (I guess they're not called deejays anymore) with warnings about these dangers and been either ignored or lampooned on the air.

What's of particular interest to me is the way the number got reached.  A pet peeve of mine is that jurors get instructions about the law from a judge, and they simply do not understand what those instructions mean.  I've done jury exercises in my business law classes and in each and every one of them, juror error sufficient to reverse their verdict on appeal took place.  This case seems to be no different:

Economic damages were assessed at $1,477,118. Non-economic damages were assessed at $15,100,000. [¶] According to juror LaTeshia Paggett, some jurors thought that criteria they'd been instructed to consider for compensation like love, companionship, and moral guidance were invaluable, and as such, the family should receive zero compensation for those areas. She said other jurors disagreed sharply and felt the compensation should have been as high as $48 million dollars. In the end, according to juror Tammy Elliott, the jury agreed to averaging the dollar amount each juror felt appropriate. "Each juror's number was weighted equally," Elliott said.
If someone describes something like "love, companionship and moral guidance" as "invaluable", that word conveys to me the implication that those things are immensely important, such that they are of infinite or incalculably high value. As a juror that would motivate me to make a large non-economic damage result. But obviously some jurors thought the exact opposite -- that they were not possessed of any monetary value or that they were qualitatively incapable of being expressed in dollars and cents. This is not the intent of the law, but it is not an unreasonable thing to believe.

Further, consider Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instruction (CACI) No. 3921, in more or less the form that it would likely have been read to the jury:

If you decide that William Strange has proved his claim against the radio station for the death of Jennifer Strange, you also must decide how much money will reasonably compensate William and his three children for the death of Jennifer. This compensation is called “damages.”

William does not have to prove the exact amount of these damages. However, you must not speculate or guess in awarding damages.

The damages claimed by William fall into two categories called economic damages and noneconomic damages. You will be asked to state the two categories of damages separately on the verdict form.

William claims the following economic damages:

1. The financial support, if any, that Jennifer would have contributed to the family during either the life expectancy that she had before her death or the life expectancy of William and the children, whichever is shorter;
2. The loss of gifts or benefits that William and the children would have expected to receive from Jennifer;
3. Funeral and burial expenses; and
4. The reasonable value of household services that Jennifer would have provided.

Your award of any future economic damages must be reduced to present cash value.

William also claims the following noneconomic damages:

1. The loss of Jennifer’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support;
2. The loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations;
3. The loss of Jennifer’s training and guidance.

No fixed standard exists for deciding the amount of noneconomicdamages. You must use your judgment to decide a reasonable amount based on the evidence and your common sense. For noneconomic damages, determine the amount in current dollars paid at the time of judgment that will compensate William and the children for those damages, and do not reduce them further to present cash value.

In determining William’s loss, do not consider:

1. William’s grief, sorrow, or mental anguish;
2. Jennifer’s pain and suffering; or
3. The poverty or wealth of the Strange family.

In deciding a person’s life expectancy, you may consider, among other factors, the average life expectancy of a person of that age, as well as that person’s health, habits, activities, lifestyle, and occupation. According to an actuarial table, the average life expectancy of a 28-year-old female is an additional 53 years, and the average life expectancy of a 29 year-old male is an additional 48.5 years.  This published information is evidence of how long a person is likely to live but is not conclusive. Some people live longer and others die sooner.

In computing these damages, consider the losses suffered by all plaintiffs and return a verdict of a single amount for all plaintiffs. I will divide the amount among the plaintiffs.
Well, tell me, Readers, does that instruction confuse you?  Does it give you good guidance in deciding how much money William Strange and his three children should recover for the loss of his wife and their mother?  Now imagine that your primary exposure to this explanation of the law was the judge reading it to you out loud in a monotone voice out of a sheaf of papers, as part of an hour's worth of such a reading.  Do you think you could apply that standard correctly?

What's more, jurors may not use aggregating methods like averaging to reach their verdicts. I quote verbatim from CACI 5009:
While I know you would not do this, I am required to advise you that you must not base your decision on chance, such as a flip of a coin. If you decide to award damages, you may not agree in advance to simply add up the amounts each juror thinks is right and then make the average your verdict.
Well, that's pretty much exactly what juror Tammy Elliott said they did. So we've got some pretty good juror error here -- although it's hard to say, exactly, how laypeople thrown into such a tense, complicated, and out-of-their-comfort-zone sort of environment could reasonably have been expected to have behaved otherwise.

Therefore, the radio station is certain to appeal.  It has sixteen and a half million good reasons to.  Should the appeal proceed all the way to examination by the appellate court, the appellate court's instict will be to strain reality and credibility mightily in a desparate effort to come up with some logical, coherent way to justify the jury's award.  If it can do so, the award will stand; if not, the parties will have to go back and try the case all over again so that a new jury can either make the same mistakes anew, or find new and different mistakes to make.

What will very likely happen during the appeal is that some kind of a settlement, for a fraction of the verdict, will be reached.  The exact number will be confidential.  I would expect that number to be between one-third to one-half of the verdict, but hey, what do I know?  Well, I know that the money in whatever amount it winds up being will be a very poor substitute indeed for William Strange and his children, who have lost a beloved wife and mother.

This, my good Readers, is how our civil justice system works, both in theory and reality. And yes, I honestly think that it really is the best judicial system in the world. Which does not mean it is a good system -- just that I think it is the best one available.

Leave The Obamas Date Night Be

Let me add my voice in harmony with Doug Mataconis and Stephen Green:  conservatives gain nothing by criticizing Barack and Michelle Obama going out on date nights.  It's kind of baffling to me that there are people who dislike Obama so much that they begrudge him spending a few hours with his wife and want to make a political issue out of the security expenses involved with this.

He's President, but he also has a family.  Seems to me that particularly "family  values" conservatives ought to like that he makes time to be with his family.  And being President is kind of a stressful job.  And everyone needs to blow off a little steam and have a little fun every once in a while -- all work and no play makes Barack a dull boy.

Now, it's true that he can't just hop on the Delta Shuttle for a half-hour flight to New York and grab a cab to Times Square to take his wife out for dinner and a show.  They have to travel by secure transportation because he is, after all, President.  And yes, that's a taxpayer expense.  There is no time that the President is not in functionally instant contact with the government -- not when he sleeps, not when he's in the restroom, when he plays golf, not when he's out on a date with his wife.  And yes, that's a taxpayer expense.  It's an expense that we Americans should be glad to pay because that's what it takes to have a stable government in today's world. 

So back off "date night." There are ample opportunities to take issue with the policies President Obama is following.

October 28, 2009

Sadly, Attorneys Do This Sort Of Thing Sometimes Too

Last week, the Governor showed up at a Democratic party function, and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano heckled him, calling Schwarzenegger a “liar” and inviting the Governor to “kiss my gay ass.” Then, a bill written by Ammiano passed the Legislature and was sent to Schwarzenegger’s desk, which the Governor vetoed today. This is his veto message:

Yes, this really happened. The Governor’s press secretary insists that the “hidden” message is simply a “weird coincidence.” Sure it was.

While this is admittedly quite amusing, it is also indicative of a breakdown in civil relations between the Governor and the Legislature and between Democrats and Republicans (particularly very moderate Republicans like Schwarzenegger).  In the first sign of any maturity at all on either side of the exchange, Ammiano says that he thinks the message was “very creative, and it’s time to bury the hatchet.”

From The People Who Brought You Proposition 8: Abolition Of Divorce

If you thought California's Proposition 8 was regressive, you ain't seen nothing yet. Now there is an effort underway to gather signatures for an initiative to ban divorce in California. Quoth one of the initiative's proponents, John Marcotte:
The secular progressives, gays and MSNBC hosts -- but we beat them once with Prop 8 and we'll beat them again. If people are thinking about getting a divorce, just remember "Hell is eternal, just like your marriage was supposed to be." Jesus still loves you if you get divorced, just not as much as before.
Wow.  Didn't I just write something about people seeking to re-implement the social and cultural norms of the Bronze Age?

On second thought, this can't be right. It's got to be some kind of a perverse joke. This simply has to be an example of Poe's Law in action, one that suckered in the normally reliable and objective Prof. Howard Friedman.

Getting The Science Wrong

The international news reporting firm Al-Jazeera ought to be ashamed of itself.  No, my conservative friends, I don't take Al-Jazeera to task today for painting America in a bad light, although I dislike that they do that, too -- Al-Jazeera is allowed to have its own editorial slant on politics, the same way Fox News is allowed to have its own editorial slant.

But having an editorial slant does not mean that a news agency is behaving within acceptable boundaries when it just plain gets the facts it reports wrong.

So Al-Jazeera should be ashamed of itself for letting one of its reporters write about something he or she doesn't understand and thereby disseminating ignorance and objectively incorrect conclusions:

“Ardi Refutes Darwin’s Theory,” Al Jazeera announced, in an Oct. 3 article not available on the English version of the website. “American scientists have presented evidence that Darwin’s theory of evolution was wrong,” the article opened. “The team announced yesterday that Ardi’s discovery proves that humans did not evolve from ancestors that resemble chimpanzees, which refutes the longstanding assumption that humans evolved from monkeys.”
Creationism!  Thy face is now Muslim.

Let's get this out of the way first.  The errors built in to Al-Jazeera's story include:
  1. Darwin did not theorize that humans evolved from monkeys. He theorized that humans and monkeys had a common ancestor. Ardipithecus is not that ancestor; its living descendants are homo sapiens and no other species, not even our closest evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees.
  2. Ardipithecus does not refute the theory of evolution. No credible scientist would make such a claim, because the opposite is true. Ardipithecus is strong evidence of the fact of human evolution. That would be akin to claiming that the use of a compass refutes the theory of magnetism.
  3. Ardipithecus is not exactly a brand-new discovery -- fossilized Ardipithecus bones were found as early as 1992 in Ethiopia, and they were classified as such in 1994.  What is relatively new is the discovery of a nearly-complete Ardipithecus skeleton, tellingly, including its skull. Al-Jazeera, however, gives the impression that less than a few months ago there was no knowledge of this hominid form.
    But then again, why should the phenomenon of denial of evolution motivated by religious fundamentalism be particularly surprising to anyone here in the West?  Even though fundamentalism's diverse adherents may regard one another as dangerously different and violent, susceptible of wearing funny clothes, using the wrong name for God, and worst of all praying in the wrong way and with the wrong language, they really have more in common with one another in the things that are really important than they have differences. Most significantly, they all labor mightily to preserve an anachronistic cultural and social structure, one modeled after the one that existed in the Fertile Crescent during the Bronze Age, when their holy books were written.

    Why should the fact that it is a different religion -- one that worships the same deity, the god of Abraham, albeit as "Allah" rather than "Jehovah" -- motivating the ignorance and denial of science be at all remarkable? I see a strong identity between the Islamic and Christian versions of a mindset that encourages its adherents to turn the dials of time back to an earlier age when the teachings, controls, and power of religion were greater than they are today; to adhere to a literal interpretation of an ancient holy book written in a time when science and rationalism were not part of the cultural dialogue; and to conflate the cultural norms of that time with the moral imperatives of a religion.  This, I tell you, is the dominantly apparent characteristic of fundamentalism as opposed to mere religion; non-fundamentalist religionists are able to separate morality from culture and find ways to apply their religions' moral teachings to the realities of contemporary life.  Fundamentalists, however, cannot reconcile the two and elect to dispense with the unpleasant incidences of modern society rather than their literalist religious teachings.

    As an inevitable result of this choice, all monotheistic fundamentalists -- Christian, Jewish, and Muslim -- are right to fear evolution as an existential threat to their ultimately depressingly similar creeds.  Because they insist that their holy books are literally correct and refuse to concede the idea that even their creation myths should be understood in an allegorical sense, they must construct elaborate fantasies and apologia, ultimately resting on deception and denial of objective reality, to address the overwhelming accumulation of scientific evidence that their creation myths are not literally true. The study of evolution really does lead to skepticism of religion, at least of religion that makes ridiculous and easily-disproved claims like the idea that women have one more rib than men.  Fundamentalists fear science and knowledge because they take away the ability of people to put their faith in their simplistic versions of religion.

    That is not to say that religion and science cannot co-exist.  My claim is more modest than that: fundamentalist religion and science will ultimately clash.  Those of us who eschew theistic thinking entirely, of course, find no discomfort with science whatsoever.  But I readily see that those theists who are willing to set aside the literal truth of their holy books to search for deeper and more sophisticated Truths therein might find a comfortable accommodation between their faith and the evidence that modern science provides.

    In the meantime, we should hardly be surprised that fundamentalist thinkers intent on preserving a Bronze Age mindset in modern times should be distressed at the overwhelming accumulation of evidence that their foundational holy text is -- at least when read literally -- a risible collection of fairy tales.  What we should be surprised at, and alarmed by, is the pervasiveness of this way of thinking and the willingness of so many people around the world to prefer its demonstrable falsities to the facts which science offers us.  Al-Jazeera's propagation of that kind of willful ignorance is at once a vivid portrayal of the extent to which this kind of willful ignorance exists, spreading like a vile and slippery fungus across our cultural landscape -- and an example of that spread in action.

    Hat tip to Tiny Frog.

    The Covey In My Front Yard

    Last year, a covey of quail moved in to my front yard.  There were at least six chicks and at least two adults.  Both had drab coloring, so they seemed to both be females.  Then, a neighborhood cat was seen around the area for several weeks, and The Wife and I feared that the cat had dined upon our state birds.

    Well yesterday I saw another covey of at least six quail, all adults, again in the front yard, seeking shelter from the winds.  I could hear that they were there again this morning as I drank my coffee, cooing as they scampered about the yard searching for food.

    Was it the same birds as last year?  Obviously I've no way to tell; I can't approach them because they fly away when I do, and I can't see any tags on their spindly little quail legs.  It pleases me to think that they are the same, though, and that the cat didn't get them all.  It's pleasing to have birds make their homes in your home.

    Photo from Wikimedia Commons, by Len Blumin (cc 2.0).

    October 27, 2009

    The Opposite Of Capitalism

    Here's the lead paragraph from the Associated Press:
    President Barack Obama on Tuesday embraced a House bill that would give the government unprecedented power to seize bank holding companies and other large financial firms teetering on the brink of collapse and stick their competitors with the cost.
    Whiskey.  Tango.  Foxtrot.

    Since when does Ford have to pay for the failures of General Motors?  Well, actually, that would be since the UAW was given a functionally controlling interest in GM while still locking its employees into Ford's labor force.  So, bad example.  Ahem...  Since when does Google have to pay for the mistakes of Microsoft?  It doesn't.  In any kind of a sane world, should Microsoft make a significant mistake, Google gets to capitalize on it.  Why is the financial services sector any different than that?

    Look, I can see the argument that more stringent regulation of financial services providers might be necessary given recent events.  Certainly I can understand, if not necessarily agree with, the political will to use the government's power to get financial services companies to behave in a more conservative fashion.  But this bill does not do that.  This bill means that if Bank of America makes a series of risky loans and fails, Wells Fargo and MBNA get to pick up the tab and pay for it -- not B of A's stockholders, which is who properly should bear that risk.

    Note, of course, that we're not just talking about banks here.  When I use the term "financial services company" that can mean a bank but it can be any entity that offers financial products of any nature -- home mortgages, mutual funds, annuities, universal life insurance policies, derivative funds, and so on.  So yes, I'm looking at the brokerage houses, and the insurance companies, and the hedge funds here.

    But the problem is that the regulations are going to be written by a "council" of the biggest of these financial product providers, under the leadership of the Federal Reserve -- and its activities in seizing and addressing failed financial product providers will be funded by the members of the council itself, not by the government.  Leaving aside the whole fox-guarding-the-henhouse nature of the manner in which the regulations would be drafted (this would be, quite frankly, par for the course) the problem is that when it comes time to put bite in it, we're talking about massive amounts of money and it has to come from somewhere.

    When even Barney Frank admits that this creates a "perverse incentive," it's a bad idea.  No, this is not just a "bad idea."  It is an abyssmally bad idea.  We could send space probes out to search this vast galaxy of ours for worse ideas and it would take centuries before they returned any likely candidates.

    The President says he likes the idea because it shifts the burden of rescuing a failed banking institution from the taxpayers to a "council" of other banks.  Whose conduct would be heavily-regulated by the government, which would force the other "council" members to pay for the rescue and rehab of their failed competitor, all under the guidance and supervision of the Federal Reserve.  Which I thought existed for the purpose of controlling the money supply and the interest rates at which the government lends and borrows money.

    Bool-shit.  If Bank of America fails, then there are three good ways under existing law to handle that:
    1. The failed bank can be acquired by one of its competitors, at a fire-sale price.  The particulars of the merger must be approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission and more recently, by the Secretary of the Treasury.
    2. The failed bank can declare bankruptcy, and either seek a reorganization or a liquidation under the supervision of the Bankruptcy Court and a Bankruptcy Trustee.  This will result in the assets of the bank being liquidated and sold off to competitors, or being reorganized and rehabilitated.  The United States of America has automatic standing to intervene in the public interest in such a proceeding.
    3. The failed bank can be seized by the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission, which will result in it being placed in receivership, there to either be merged, liquidated, or rehabilitated -- sort of an involuntary bankruptcy.  Here and only here do taxpayer dollars come in to play, and that is done only to guarantee the safety of deposits.  (The receiver is paid out of the remaining assets of the failed bank.)

    These ways of handling failed banks work fine.  There is plenty of room for governmental involvement and supervision in all of them so that the public can make sure that conservative, smart, and ultimately beneficial decisions get made about how all of these things happen.  Now, if the proposal were only to expand the scope of the FDIC or to create another government entity analagous to the FDIC for other kinds of financial services company, I would probably not be saying much of anything. But that's not what's on the table here.

    So we've no need of a fourth way of dealing with this, in particular not a fourth way that involves the seizure of the assets of a company that avoided the mistakes of the failed competitor.  To further quote the AP:
    Federal regulators already can dismantle banks. But the government was powerless last year at the height of the financial crisis when large bank holding companies and other non-bank institutions, such as insurance giant American International Group, started failing.
    Who should pay to dismantle these firms had been considered among the toughest questions that Congress had to answer after last year's near-collapse of several firms that prompted hefty government bailouts.
    Lawmakers know that voters are still angry from the bailouts and don't want to see taxpayer money on the line. At the same time, businesses say it is unfair to force them to invest their capital in advance to pay for the mistakes of others.
    "It is unfair to force them to invest their capital in advance to pay for the mistakes of othes."  You don't say. 

    Now, this terrifyingly bad idea isn't the end of America as we know it, so let's not panic just yet.  Here's why I say that.  If I were forced to pay a tax, that would be one thing.  This isn't a tax.  It's a taking.  That makes it a Fifth Amendment issue.  If I owned stock in, say, SunTrust Bank, and SunTrust was required to participate in this "council" and then use its assets to rehabilitate MBNA which was teetering on the brink of failure, I'd sue the government.  My property -- that is, the bank which I owned and its assets -- would be taken from me for some kind of a public benefit, and that means that the government has to compensate me for that.  I think I'd win on that seizure claim.

    But just because the courts are there to protect against this sort of an abuse does not mean the idea should be endorsed.  It is a terrible idea and it should be resisted mightily.  It is one thing to say that segments of the free market that impact the public benefit need to be regulated.  Reasonable people can disagree about that.  It is something else to say that the market as a whole must be directly controlled by the government to correct the mistakes of one of its members.  That is what the President is talking about.  That is not capitalism, in which a competitor either profits by dint of its cleverness or fails by dint of its risky behavior.  This is the opposite of capitalism.  Let's get our Congresscritters to stop this idea in its tracks so we don't have to bother a court with it, why don't we?

    And egad, something else just occurred to me.  If you thought it was expensive for the government to bail out failed banks using taxpayer money, just wait until it tries to do it for free.  A poignant thought on the day our national debt topped twelve trillion dollars.

    UPDATE:  Banks within the FDIC system are required to pay money into the FDIC to help fund its depositor-protection activities, in what amounts to a mandated insurance policy. This is qualitatively and quantitatively different than FDIC member banks being required to pay in enough money to bail out their competitiors when they fail.


    I awoke today to strong winds in the back yard.  They didn't let up all day.  As I made my way to the court, it looked to me as though it were about to rain, or a fog had set in.  Certainly it was cold enough for a fog.  But it wasn't fog, it was sand from the desert floor thrown across the California countryside by a vicious, angry, frigid wind.  As I waited for my cases to be called I could look out the windows to the dry creek bed, and saw curls of white-brown sand thrown fifty feet into the air, and the mountains -- less than ten miles away -- obscured to invisibility in the violent drabness of the sandy air.  When I left, I had to walk through the dirty gusts, which I was told later were, on occasion, in excess of the posted speed limit for most of our streets.  The grit shot instantly into my mouth and nose, and forced me to shut my eyes, walking nearly blind through the parking lot.  Even in the safety of my car, the cruel wind pushed on me again and again, varying my vehicle's vector to veer as I made my way to the office.

    Nature is more powerful than you.

    The Prayerful Crossword (Updated)

    What is the deal with the daily crossword puzzle in the Fish Wrapper?  It has had a smattering of clues and answers recently that reflect the author's religious biases.  It's as though the editor is consciously favoring religious players:

    September 18, 45-Across:  You won't find one in a foxhole.  "ATHEIST".  (Bool-shit.)

    October 14, 22-Down:  Lord's Prayer words following "Thy will be done".  "ONEARTH".  (This would be tough for Jewish or Muslim players, too.)

    October 20, 3-Down:  Ancestors in Darwin's theory.  "APEMAN".  (No, they're not.)

    October 26, 17-Across:  Hymn whose title follows the line, "When I die, Hallelujiah, by and by".  "ILLFLYAWAY".  (Having never heard that hymn, I had a great deal of difficulty with this clue.)

    October 27, 3-Down:  "Now ___ me down..." "ILAY".  (A further gripe here -- Christian parents of many stripes morbidly force their children to recite, which will either terrify them into not being able to sleep or to inure them to reciting the words of a prayer without really thinking about what they're saying, neither of which sound like what they really want.)

    Point is, the authors are drawing on Christianity prayer and thinking to put together their clues.  October 20 didn't have to misrepresent evolution, to get "APEMAN" you could have referenced Tarzan or Planet of the Apes.  And September 18's clue is downright offensive to the many non-theistic members of the military who serve honorably and bravely.

    UPDATES:  October 29, 10-Down:  "Heavenly Altar."  "ARA".  (Turns out this word has pagan roots.  But I don't worship Zeus, either.)

    November 1, 22-Across: "___ Mater (Hymn)"  "STABAT".

    October 26, 2009

    Pale Blue Dot

    A Happy Anniversary Indeed

    I have nothing more to add to this eloquent sentiment from Bad Astronomy:  "Happy anniversary, smallpox, gone these past 32 years. And may I add, good damn riddance. May reason, rationality, and science-based medicine do the same for every other threat to the health and well being of the human race as well."

    October 24, 2009

    No Really I Prefer To Pay More

    Only in Germany.

    Weekend Weirdness, Volume II

    I quite enjoyed last week's Saturday compliation of the weirdest things I've come across on the Intertubes.  So here's this week's installment.

    Let's start with some big critters.  I don't know why but the cow is somehow more impressive than the pigs.  And if that doesn't freak you out, I bet this will.

    Here's a large sample platter of assorted cheesiness.  Much of it remarkably well-preserved from my youth.

    Then, God prefers atheists.  Here's why: unlike some folks, atheists tend to not be inconsistently paranoid about bar codes.

    Carving a pumpkin this weekend?  I thought my idea of a Roswell alien on an oval gourd was creative but it turns out there's a few levels above that.

    Danii Minogue attacks a man while swimming in the Great Barrier Reef.  I think this was supposed to be a humor column but if so it falls short of the mark.

    Eat your heart out, Jerry Bruckheimer.

    A profoundly bad idea, mass-produced in plastic.

    October 22, 2009

    The "Bully Pulpit" Takes On A New Meaning: Banninating Fox News

    Saturday, the White House "declared war" on Fox News, when the President's senior political advisor David Axelrod said that Fox News is "not really news."  The reaction to this was immediate uproar, but I admit it -- I thought this would blow over quickly.  Axelrod was taking a swipe at the conservative and anti-Administration editorial slant that really does creep into Fox News' reporting from time to time.

    But it didn't blow over.  And it didn't really start on Saturday.  It started at least at the end of September when there seemed to be gleeful reactions by conservatives to the decision of the IOC to award the 2016 Olympics to Rio instead of Chicago -- the White House blog took on the subject directly, and with the gusto that only a blogger could put into the probject.  Robert Gibbs told the press corps that the White House did not consider Fox to be a "news organization" at all.  White House Communications Director Anita Dunn dismissed Fox News as "opinion journalism masquerading as news."  Axelrod's quip was really a continuation of that trend, although a highly-placed one.

    The point is, "White House versus Fox News" has been making news all week, and the Administration isn't backing down from it.  And apparently, today the White House offered up "Pay Czar" Kenneth Feinberg to deal with press inquiries about the Administration's decision to cut executive pay at the major corporations the government has "temporarily" taken a controlling interest in as a result of the Great Financial Crash Of 2008. This too seemed like the sort of thing I might ignore.  Only the White House Press Office announced that Fox News would be excluded from the event completely.

    Amazingly, the rest of the press corps unified behind Fox.  If Fox wasn't going to be permitted to go in there and ask questions, the rest of them wouldn't go in, either.  Good for them.  The White House doesn't get to tell Fox how to report the news.  They don't get to tell Fox to abandon its editorial slant.

    And Fox gets to have an editorial slant if it wants one.  It has a First Amendment right to do so.

    I might disagree with that editorial slant, but then again, I don't have to watch Fox News if I don't want to.  If Fox News' editorial slant is so off-putting that large segments of its audience turns them off, Fox News will either adapt to that condition of the marketplace, or its ratings and thus its earnings will go down.  Its choices are to appeal to its audience, or die.

    In Europe, the convention and expectation is that news reporting organizations will have their own particular editorial slant.  I often look to the UK news outlets to get global news since American news organizations seem to think that like the maps they had in their classrooms in elementary school, the relevant part of the world ends outside the border of the lower 48 states.  I know when I read the BBC, it will have a corporate, pro-establishment take on things, and when I read the Guardian it will generally favor the Labour party, and when I read the Telegraph, it will have a generally Tory slant.  I have to use my own intelligence to sift through what I read and separate fact from editorial opinion.

    We have this strange idealism in the United States, though, that the news reporting institutions are supposed to report everything in a completely unbiased sort of way.  I don't want the news lying to me or deceiving me by excluding relevant facts, but at the same time I don't want reporters turning their brains off or simply regurgitating the pablum fed to them by their sources.  I want and expect journalists to ask difficult, critical questions of their sources because that's where the real value of news reporting comes in to play.  If it appears to me that a news agency is not using those kinds of critical thinking skills in an intelligent and worthwhile way, I lose respect for that agency and begin to think about satisfying my hunger for news elsewhere.

    So while I may be critical of the unhinged and paranoid hysteria Glenn Beck sells on Fox, and while I may note things like tone of voice or editorial selection of subjects on Fox News bleeding between the pundits who are giving unabashed opinions and the allegedly "neutral" news readers, the fact of the matter is that I do not expect or even want any news agency to become so "neutral" that they either seek "opposing points of view" from fringe or unreliable sources, or that they stop critically sourcing and fact-checking the people in power.  Right now, the Obama Administration is in power and Fox News -- having a conservative slant, appealing to a generally conservative audience -- is in a good position to ask hard questions of the people in the White House.  I can take issue with the concept of "narrative" reporting arcs transcending multiple stories, but that's something that both conservative and liberal journalists do.  And it, too, is something that I simply have to take into account when I read the news.

    I expect journalists covering the high levels of government to be smart, to not take things they are told at face value, and to ask hard questions.  To do that, you have to form opinions about what you hear.  That's the only way your B.S. detectors are going to be working, the only way to know, "Hey, that politician just told a lie." 

    All too often my criticism of major news reporting companies is that they spend too much time reporting things that just plain aren't news at all as if they were Very Important Events.  Like the Olympics thing that got this whole kerfuffle started.  It just wasn't front-page news.  The White House inflated its importance, and the punditocracy out there in the world inflated it back, and by the time it hit the eight majors (ABC, AP, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, Reuters, and UPI) it was The Biggest Story Of The Week.  No, it wasn't.

    Fox News is not a perfect news organization. But like it or not, Fox News is one of the major news organizations not just in the U.S. but in the whole English-speaking world, because it plugs into Rupert Murdoch's Sky News network. It has an audience of millions and it has reporters who -- even if they don't check their personal opinions at the door -- are out there looking for the facts so they have something to report. If they ask their sources hard questions, they're doing their jobs. If they present the facts they discover with their own editorial slant, well, that's a part of who and what they are. And yes, Fox does do this. Indeed, it often does blur the line between punditry and opinion on the one hand and reporting the events of the day as they happened on the other.

    But that doesn't mean that the White House gets to arbitrarily exclude them from the press. The government is differently-situated than a private individual. If it is going to dispense information about what it is doing at all, it needs to dispense that information fairly and evenhandedly, precisely because it is the government. If the Bush Administration had refused to communicate with MSNBC or CBS because of their generally left-of-center bias, that would be just as bad.

    The power of the President's "bully pulpit" is the power to persuade, not the power to censor.  Let the White House explain to a critical press and a skeptical public what it wants to do with our government.  If the press is biased against the people in power, then that just means that the people in power have to explain that much better why their ideas are good ones.  That is not a bad thing.

    October 21, 2009

    Sports Psychology

    Speaking of sports, though, I had a great insight today from a colleague:  people who like sports are distinguished from people who don't like sports based on their relative comfort level with ambiguous rules. 

    See, as we grow and develop, we come to understand that there are rules in the world, and we also perceive that sometimes those rules are applied flexibly or selectively.  Most of us find this unjust and unfair in some way, usually when we are on the bad end of the disparity -- or when someone else is on the good end and gets a reward or benefit that we are denied.  We all internalize and accept the notion that the world just isn't fair, in our own ways and at our own paces.  But maybe some of us long for a really fair world to a degree that others do not.

    Those who have that strong desire for fairness, that strong desire for certainty, that need to know who wins and who loses, find themselves more attracted to sports than their opposite numbers.  In sports, there are rules, damnit.  In baseball, if the ball goes outside the base line, it's foul, whether you're Milt Pappas or Frank Robinson.  In (American) football, if you goe outside the line with the ball, the clock stops whether you're Randy Moss or Joe Shit the Ragman.  If you drive the ball into the water, that's a one-stroke penalty.  Doesn't matter if you're Tiger Woods.  Maybe the rule isn't fair, maybe it isn't the best possible rule, but the rule is the rule.  You have certainty.  And almost all the time, you wind up with a winner and a loser.

    Even if the refs make a bad call, you know where you stand. And for the most part, the rules are at least aimed at creating a system where there is a pretense of fair play and evenhandedness in dispensing and administering the rules.  Something in the sports fan hungers for that kind of regimentation, that kind of structure, in contrast to the  way that the non-sports fan is comfortable with ambiguity in the structure and administration of rules.

    In real life, if you have a disagreement with someone else and you walk away, you may tell yourself you got the better of the exchange, but your counterpart is probably telling herself the same thing and there is no third party to pronounce one side or the other the winner.  In sports, though, the rules discourage and in most cases prohibit disputes resulting in a draw. Particularly here in hyper-competitive America,  the prevalence of tie scores in soccer (European/global football) is probably the biggest reason why that sport has not ever really taken off in a big way here.  The NHL stopped having tie games, going to a shootout format if games are still tied after overtime.  Major League Soccer would be well-advised to do something similar.  Whether your team wins or loses, there is a result.  Once again, you know where you stand and that is something of a consolation no matter what that standing might be. 

    My response to this concept was that in the world of music, there are a lot of different genres and ways to perform -- and listen -- to music.  Some people find themselves gravitating to musical forms like jazz and free-form hip-hop.  These are the same people who find themselves indifferent to sports and for the same reason -- they are comfortable with the unstructured, improvised structures of that genre of music.  But others find themselves enjoying, whether consciously or not, the structure of forms of music like rock and roll, old-school rap, or classical music.  My colleague got the concept right away; it is the same mental dynamic.

    All of this is a bunch of tendencies and gross generalizations, of course.  But I think there's some meat on those bones.

    The fact that rock and classical music tend to have larger audiences than jazz, and the fact that there seem to be more sports fans than non-sports fans, suggests that more people desire certainty and structure in the rules that govern the world around them than there are people who are willing to navigate the world with improvised and unstructured rules.

    It's natural to read something like this and react that, "Well, I'm not really like that, so there must be a flaw with this."  And maybe there is -- but I think everyone's reflexive response to that sort of generalization is to resist it and that's probably a mistake.  Be willing to at least consider the possibility that one or the other kind of personality trait may actually be subsumed within your psyche and that your preference for (or apathy towards) sports or certain kinds of music may be a reflection of your comfort or discomfort with ambiguously-administered rules.

    It's a good launching point for introspection about your subconscious attitudes towards authority, even if you ultimately conclude that my colleague and I are quite full of it.  (You wouldn't be the first to think that about either of us and I promise, we're not offended.)

    There's Always Next Season

    I'd just as soon not talk about it.  I can't make myself care all that much about a Phillies-Yankees World Series.

    I Forsee Copyright Problems (UPDATED)

    A left-leaning publication house called OR Books is going to release a book called Going Rogue:  Sarah Palin An American Nightmare on the same day that former Governor Palin's memoir Going Rogue: An American Life will be released.  The font, layout, and cover illustration of both books are very similar.

    OR Books is in some trouble if they go through with this plan, I should think.  It's not that they can't criticize Gov. Palin, -- it's that they can't do it by poaching her intellectual property.  The book is, I presume, a for-profit venture by Palin and she's entitled to trade off her own ideas (or those given to her by her publisher, who is definitely in it for the money).  For the record, I think publishing a book with an eye to selling it and making money from the sales is a very good thing to be doing and I wouldn't begrudge Palin a penny of the royalties she earns.  Similarly, if OR Books thinks there is an audience for an anti-Palin book, well, she's a politicians so criticizing her is fair game and they, too, are entitled to whatever profits they can earn from the market.

    Now, the title is different and there is certainly no problem with using a photograph fo Palin to illustrate the contents of a book critical of this public figure.  But it's really difficult to look at the two books side-by-side and conclude that one didn't intentionally steal the artwork from the other -- and do so with the intet to confuse a potential buyer.  I consider myself a fairly attentive consumer, one who looks closely at details -- and someone who was attuned to the issue before approaching the subject matter.  Still, I was confused.  If an attentive, legally sophisticated, and pre-advised consumer was confused as easily and thoroughly as I was, the "average" consumer would almost certainly be led astray to the point that it would be little better than chance to have bought the actual correct book.

    That is the essence of copyright -- you can't take someone else's work and pass it off as your own.  The EW article I linked to below shows yet a third book called "Going Rogue," this one also critical of Palin -- but at least that one has artwork sufficiently dissimilar from Palin's real memoir that I would have had no doubt about what it was I was buying and what to expect in the book.

    If OR Books goes through with its plan, I kind of hope Sarah Palin sues them for all they're worth. I'm not a particular fan of Sarah Palin but she's entitled to write, market, and sell her book on fair terms.  There's plenty of ways these OR Books dudes could have made their point and sold their book without intentionally confusing people or stealing Palin's intellectual property.

    UPDATE:  Good points here from Prof. David Post at Volokh -- the applicable standard in copyright is "beyond fair use," and fair use includes parody or criticism.  But in trademark law, confusion is the applicable standard.  So maybe there is a good defense to copyright -- but "fair use" in the trademark context is very different than "fair use" in the copyright context.  A "fair use" of someone else's mark is what happens when you compare attributes of your product or service with the competitor's.  There is another point -- the OR book critical of Palin will be sold in paperback, and the actual Palin memoir, at least right away, will be sold in hardback, which is usually a larger size than a paperback.  But I still say that the obvious intent is not just to parody the real Palin book but rather to emulate its look a closely as possible.  And even if it's non-actionable plagiarism, that's still pretty scuzzy.

    Members Of The Blog Police May Need To Repeat Seventh Grade English

    From a comment to a blog I frequently read:  "Their is an error in your blog."  I couldn't have manufactured that if I'd tried.

    October 20, 2009

    Hugh Hewitt's Faith

    I'm driving home after an enormously stressful day at work.  My conservative buddy calls me up on the way, so I pull over and take the call.  (Unlike Maria Shriver, I'm ready to concede that the no-cell-phone-while-driving law applies to me.)  He tells me that he's listening to this really interesting interview with his man Hugh Hewitt and my man Richard Dawkins.  I try and find it myself, but the station my buddy is listening to in Los Angeles is just not coming in very clearly up here north of the Santa Susannas.

    But it turns out that there is a transcript of the interview available online.  And it is mostly a very good interview indeed.  I have to take what I know of the personality of both men and infer when they are being humorous with one another -- like when Dawkins complains that he feels like he's being cross-examined by a lawyer, and Hewitt responds that he is a lawyer, and Dawkins makes a big show of complaining about that.  I assumed that they were joshing with one another, although it's possible that they weren't because swords had been drawn at that point.

    The bulk of the interview, appropriately enough, is about evolution and the evidence for it.  Only towards the end does Hewitt take on Dawkins' atheism, and then it gets a little bit ugly and less intelligent.  Frankly, on both sides, for a while, when Hewitt tried to argue that Dawkins unfairly dismisses contemporaneous evidence of Jesus' divinity and miracle-working -- a subject upon which I have recently done quite a lot of research myself, so Hewitt looks to me to be making an attack on a false premise.  Which does not excuse Dawkins from taking the bait and reacting badly to it.

    But the better exchange between the two came towards the end, when the subject of suffering and imperfections in the world were discussed.  Dawkins has the easier position, I think -- a world without an intelligent designer does not need to apologize for the existence of suffering; suffering is a byproduct of natural selection which inherently requires competition for scarce resources resulting in harm to individuals.  Hewitt, however, argues that suffering and imperfections (for instance, flaws in the human eye like the blind spot and image inversion) may be part of a design to the universe that is orders of magnitude more subtle than the simplistically beneficent designer that Dawkins might have hoped for:
    HH: Do you read any fiction at all?

    RD: Of course.

    HH: What’s the most complicated bit of fiction you’ve read? Like War and Peace?

    RD: Yeah, what’s your point? What point are you making?

    HH: That complexity in design, and counterintuitive steps, et cetera, don’t disprove the idea of genius at work. Genius at work often works through complexity and through misdirection.

    RD: I think that what you’re kind of saying is that God made the world look as though it had evolved in order to test our faith, when it didn’t evolve.

    HH: No, not test our faith. I’m saying that the world has been made as it is to allow for faith, because if it was made too easy for the simple-minded, it would simply be routine, and everyone would believe, and then there would be no faith.

    RD: That would be a pretty unpleasant sort of God. I think, I would say you’re welcome to believe in a kind of God who would do that, but it’s not the kind of God that would appeal to me.

    HH: Well, it’s not about what appeals to us, it’s about what is. And you also write that a beneficent designer might, you’d idealistically think, minimize suffering. But not if the soul was infinite, and suffering was necessary for its wisdom.

    RD: No, that’s true. I, once again, you’re welcome to that belief, if that’s what you want to believe. There’s a far more parsimonious explanation for suffering, which is natural selection.

    Now, here's where there is some real interesting stuff going on.  Hewitt's position (which I disagree with) is relatively sophisticated -- the soul is infinite, or has infinite potential, but cannot  grow and mature and become fully-realized without suffering of some kind.  And, just because we might want the creator to have designed the universe in such a way as to have minimized suffering does not mean that the creator necessarily is that way.  These are intelligent and worthwhile points -- assuming that one concedes a) the existence of a creator in the first place and b) the existence of souls in at least human beings.  Hewitt also has no trouble conceding evolution and the idea of an old Earth; he is not married to the idea of Biblical literalism, which strikes me as a smart thing for a believer to do -- understand the history and allegory of the holy book, and use it as a tool from which one can extract moral guidance and advice for how to live one's life.

    The act of faith he describes as necessary for the soul to self-actualize is something that sounds like it is quite sophisticated, complex, and most of all, difficult to do in a complete or meaningful way.  If he has done it, and found happiness in it, good for him.  And I also like that -- at least in this exchange -- neither Hewitt nor Dawkins dumb down their arguments, and indeed they both short-circuit a number of the predicate "baby step" arguments and propositions that I've heard so many tedious times before.  They get right to the meat of it.

    Now, I think ultimately, the creator that Hewitt is describing ultimately boils down to being a God of the Gaps.  Science will eventually whittle that God of the Gaps down to pretty much nothing -- most of the origin story in the book of Genesis, for instance, is reduced to the creation of clever self-replicating chemical processes.  But Hewitt's notion of what faith is has intellectual appeal to me because the act of faith is something that seems very difficult to me indeed.  It is not as simple or as easy as driving your car down the road and "having faith" that the other driver isn't going to hit you -- an explanation that has been offered to me on more than one occasion by more than one well-intentioned but hopelessly simplistic missionary.  It dovetails with other notions that I have about Christianity when practiced well -- it is a difficult and demanding moral code, it requires a strong personal commitment by the Christian, and it is something that one must internalize because wearing it on your sleeve is entirely beside the point of the exercise.

    So, it reminds me that there is much about my religious friends I can admire despite not sharing their faith.  And at the end of the interview, one is left with the impression that there is some respect between the interviewer and interviewee, which is rare enough that it leave a nice taste in the reader's mouth.

    Human Evolution In Action

    Humans are not immune to evolutionary pressures and that makes some folks wonder what future humans will look like as we continue to evolve.  These folks think that we'll be shorter, heavier, have better hearts, and women will be fertile for longer in their lives.  Not dramatically so but probably enough to notice.  Not sure why they're focusing on women -- seems as though those traits would affect men as well except, obviously, for menopause. 

    But that's not the only school of thought on the issue.  There is a somewhat depressing theory posited that humanity will split into two sub-species with one having clear dominance over the other, not unlike the terrifying vision of the future in H.G. Wells' Time MachineTranshumanists believe that we can and should artificially interfere with our descendents' attributes.  Still others suggest that human evolution is done; the theory goes that by taking control of our environment, selecting mates for reasons unrelated to survival, creating tools and medicine to accomodate for physical deficiencies, and so on, we have removed the pressure of natural selection and instead will continue indefinitely like we are now, for so long as we have technological mastery of our world.

    I'm actually closer to the "evolution has stopped" school of thought for humans -- because we have lessened the impact of things like susceptibility to diseases through vaccinations, improved nutrition generally, and created contraceptive devices to disconnect sexual behavior from reproduction.  But I wouldn't necessarily think that we've stopped evolving.  Rather, I'd say that we're introducing a new set of criteria for reproduction.  And what those are, I'll say, are not yet clear enough after only a handful of generations of serious technological and medical relief from the pressure of natural selection.  Let's concentrate on finding a way to sustain our industrialized existence first, and let human evolution take care of itself for a while.

    Profanely Good Fried Chicken

    I will probably never be able to make this.  But oh how I want to.    Instead of marinating the fried chicken in buttermilk, the guy used salted mozzarella whey.

    Judicial Activism Rears Its Ugly Head

    When the Legislature passes a law, with a plain, obvious meaning on its face, and a judge gets a case implicating that statute, and makes a point of saying that he thinks its result is "absurd" and instead creates his own rule and applies it to the situation in front of him, that's judicial activism, right?

    If so, Justice Robie is a judicial activist.  Only I doubt there will be any hue and cry whatsoever about this bit of judicial activism happening.  Because the result of the judicial activism is taking away the driver's license of a guy driving an eighteen-wheeler after he got popped for a .04 BAC, instead of letting gay people live their lives the way they want to.  Judicial activism is good when you agree with the result!

    Hat tip to Prof. Shaun Martin.

    October 19, 2009

    Electrifying Personality

    Optimism About The Dollar

    Well, it's good to see that someone has a better attitude about the U.S. national currency than me.  Doesn't mean I think we can afford to relax on this subject, though -- and ultimately, strong dollars are the result of a strong economy, which is something everyone should be shooting for, at least in principle.

    Jimmy Rollins Wasn't Supposed To Double Like That

    Crap.  Now we'll just have to win three in a row.  Broxton didn't have control at all.  He blew the save, bottom of the ninth, with two outs.  Nothing for it any more.  Gotta win out now.

    October 18, 2009

    Define Science

    Part of my continuing series of "bashing my head against the wall with apologetics" posts.  Please take a look at this exchange, Readers, and tell me what I'm doing wrong here.  Or if there is anything I could possibly say that would help out here.

    "Empiricism is not science"?  What do you say to something like that?  Seriously, this is a doomed discussion, isn't it?

    Intermediate Fossils

    It occurred to me that the usual anti-evolution protest of "There are no intermediates in the fossil record!" is kind of like looking at a spectrum cast out of a prism:

    Optics-Denier:  "Well, I see red and I see blue, sure, but there are no transitional colors."

    Optics-Proponent:  "How about yellow?"

    OD:  "Well, see, now you've actually made the problem worse.  Now there's a gap between red and yellow and a gap between yellow and blue."

    OP:  "Okay, well, how about green?  Look, there's green right there."

    OD:  "What green?  Where?  I see yellow and blue.  There is no such thing as green light coming from white light.  Show me a blue light that reflects red, and then I'll believe what you claim about optics."

    OP:  "Arrgh!"

    Now, the analogy isn't perfect.  Each individual color has a "common ancestor" with the others -- the white light hitting the prism.  But we can't really say that green is a closer relative to blue than is red, since the colors all diverged from the white light at the same time.  But aside from that, dealing with deniers of evolution is a lot like this.

    It wouldn't matter if this was fringe stuff.  But lots of folks claim to disbelieve evolution.  It's like disbelieving gravity -- how long can you listen to someone say something like that without speaking out?

    October 17, 2009

    All Kinds Of Teh Crazee

    For your bemusement on a Saturday, and because you're probably tired  by now of Meghan McCain's breasts and wondering whether the saga of Balloon Boy was a hoax, I offer a smörgåsbord of internet-based bizarreness:

    Lady Gaga is really the Illuminati flaunting their control over you.

    At last! "Scientific" demonstration of Jesus' divinity, proven by the fact that God exists.  (Why hadn't that ever occurred to me?  Oh, that's right, it's because I've avoided falling into the intellectual rabbit-hole of Platonic meta-idealism.)

    Condoleeza Rice shatters the stereotype.

    Behold, The Future!  Here is what life will be like in the distant year of 2010!  Wait, that's not the future, it's right now.  Only back then it was the future.  Oh, this is getting confusing....

    Equally paradoxical, this bordello gives you a discount if you come on a bicycle.  I know, I shouldn't work blue because kids could read this.  But if you get the double entendre, it wasn't me that polluted your mind.

    And finally, a challenge for armchair archaeologists:  separate the hoaxes from real artifacts!  Hint: consider historical patterns of climate change.

    October 16, 2009

    You Are An Advertisement - So Try To Be A Good One

    Biblical cherry picking doesn't come any more awfully ironic than this.  A better example of using religion to cloak naked, indefensible bigotry and hate is difficult to imagine.  Regardless of whether the wearer of this tattoo had read Leviticus 19:28, his claim that the victim's sexual orientation had nothing to do with the nearly-deadly beat-down* would be wide open for what we lawyers call "impeachment."

    It's not that I think religion necessarily leads to this sort of thing. It doesn't. But here's the rule, people. If you're going to be religious, that's fine. Just don't pretend that your religion is a substitute for morality. You aren't relieved of your obligation to your fellow human beings to behave in an ethical fashion just because you are faithful. When you are religious, and you make ethical decisions (like deciding to beat a man into unconsciousness because he's gay), you represent your religion to the rest of the world. What kind of an advertisement are you?

    And that goes for atheists, too. No one gains moral cachet with me because they share my lack of religious faith. You, too, must still be moral and behave within the boundaries of civilized society.

    * Disturbing video of which can be found here.

    October 15, 2009


    Our government is drowning in debt and that means we have to tighten our belts.  Very few people are talking about how or where to cut Federal spending, though.  And in any discussion of the appropriate size and role of the Federal government -- such as is going on across the right-of-center blogosphere now -- a fair discussion requires a good understanding of what it is that the government spends our money on.  And the single biggest program in the Federal government is Social Security.

    There, that fell with a thud, didn't it?

    No one wants to do anything about Social Security.  It's rightly called the "third rail" of American politics; George W. Bush tried to suggest a partial privatization as an idea, and got burned badly by it.  Everyone else who's even mentioned anything other than "protecting" it has been spanked at the polls.  Congress is so afraid of doing anything to it that it puts Social Security "off-budget," meaning that we don't even see the tax collection and benefit distribution in most analyses of the budget.  But that is just smoke and mirrors by Federal accountants (who, to be fair, are only complying with laws Congress passed requiring that they not include it).

    Just in case you didn't know, there is no "lockbox."  There is no "trust fund."  There never was.  Benefits paid today are funded by taxes collected today. And when the taxes collected today run out, the remainder of the benefits are paid for by government debt, in the form of T-bills that are issued today.  And demographics are not on the side of the system; the system was designed to give a nice benefit to people who retired for a few years before they died, in anticipation of them dying (and thus going off the benefit rolls) about five years after they stopped working, with many more active, younger workers supporting the older, retired benefit recipients.  The target ratio was 10 workers to one retiree, creating a net influx of cash into the Federal tax coffers (to subsidize other governmental activities).  But by 2020, the ratio of retired benefit recipients to active, younger workers paying taxes into the system will be 1:1 and will continue to decline from there, with recipients living fifteen to twenty years after retirement.

    And the reason that reform of Social Security is so politically awful is that there are absolutely no good ways to do it.  There are exactly two ways to do it -- 1) increase  taxes, or 2) restrict the benefits.  Under the current system, taxes can be increased in one of two ways:  1(A) increase employment taxes, or 1(B) increase income taxes; and benefits can be restricted in one of two ways 2(A) pay Social Security recipients less money, or 2(B) increase the age at which one becomes eligible for retirement benefits.  That's it -- there are no other tricks, no other ways to solve the problem.  You can blend multiple elements of these ideas, in varying amounts, but those are the only options.

    So it's oddly welcome news to see that this year, for what seems like the first time ever, Social Security will not be indexing up its benefits for cost-of-living adjustments.  Effectively, this is a reduction in benefits, option 2(A).  Unfortunately, this first-ever reduction in benefits will be accompanied by about another $13 billion "supplemental stimulus" payments, in the form of a special $250-per-recipient check.  Seniors relying on Social Security will therefore get a "bonus" of $250 but miss out on cost of living adjustments on the benefits they have based their retirement budgets on -- just as we move into what promises to be an inflationary period of the economy.  Not exactly "change you can believe in," is it?

    Meaningful reform, however, will involve more than sugar-coating incremental indexing out of the coming tsunami of entitlement obligations.  If anything, this step will teach the Feds a way to further defer addressing the real problem.

    October 14, 2009


    The Governator's wife has been caught, three times, driving while using a cell phone. That's all right -- when her husband signed that new law requiring the use of hands-free sets while driving, he didn't mean you.  Governor Schwarzenegger promises that "swift action" will be taken.  As in, "Knock if off, Maria, you're making me look bad!"

    My handsfree set went out a few weeks ago and it needs to be replaced.  Until then, I've been pulling over when someone calls me and I can't resist the impulse to answer (like when it's my wife).  In the meantime, one of the lawyers in my firm seems to have a Maria Shriver-like attitude -- he just takes or makes the calls and drives as if the law simply didn't exist or he didn't care about it.  It's only a matter of time until he gets busted, too.  Maybe I should get him a handsfree set, too.  But even if I did, he won't use it.

    Fifty People, One Question

    The film itself is a bit heavy-handed and I think the editor could have done a better job of introducing the topic than with that first guy. But it's a charming idea all the same:My answer is in the comments. Please add yours.

    October 13, 2009

    How To Expose Bigotry

    Imagine if you saw a headline and news story like this one:

    A pro-Christian activist says he's not surprised that the Walt Disney Company has named an open Jew as studio head.
    Disney announced last week it had named Rich Ross as studio chief. The 47-year-old television executive helped to revive the Disney Channel, and now will oversee all production, distribution, and marketing for the company's live-action and animated feature labels. It is the first time an open Jew has been named to such a position.
    Peter LaBarbera is president of Americans for Truth About Jews. He says although a boycott of the entertainment giant (initiated by the American Christian Association) was called off several years ago, the company is still very Jew-friendly.
    "The sad reality is that whenever you see a Jewish activist at the top, nine times out of ten they end up pushing that Jewish agenda using their influence to push it wherever they can," states LaBarbera.
    "It's the way the Jewish movement ends up influencing the country far beyond its tiny numbers," he explains. "They get in key positions of power, and then they use that power to advance their agenda."
    LaBarbera says it is time for parents to get educated and to move away from Disney to Christian-friendly entertainment companies.

    You'd be utterly repulsed, wouldn't you? Of course you would. I sure would.

    If you were Christian, you'd be a little bit embarassed by that, feel a need to distance yourself from it, explain how these people might call themselves Christian but you don't think their attitudes and statements are consistent with really being Christian. At least, I hope that's what a true Christian would say.

    But, that's not how the actual article reads. Mr. Ross may or may not be an "open Jew," but in fact he is (or at least he is being called) an "open homosexual," and LaBarbera's group is not a "pro-Christian" organization but rather a "pro-family" one (although one wonders exactly how much overlap there might be). That is the nature of the people who have gone out of their way to condemn this piece of otherwise utterly prosaic entertainment industry news. Now, you and I might say, "So what if a gay man is running the studio at Disney? What matters is whether Disney produces salable, family-friendly product."

    So read the actual article and tell me why it isn't as bigoted as the tweaking of it I set forth above really is. And then, if you're conservative, justify (if you can) continuing to get your news from this source. Or turning to the excerable American Family Association for anything reliable.

    Hat tip to Box Turtle Bulliten.

    Wimpy Dollars

    The political issue of the strength of our currency is coming down the pike.  I've been a lone wolf on this issue for a while and finally -- finally -- some news organizations are starting to notice that our prolonged insistence on nearly non-existent interest on government debt, and massive-deficit-spending ways, have made the dollars worth less than they have been in more than a century. 

    This will be a political issue in the upcoming political cycle -- and, ironically enough for me, Sarah Palin appears to be the first Republican to be picking up on it.  The upcoming j'accuse in the 2012 Presidential debate will be: "You've made our money worthless!"  (It won't matter that the process started under President Bush; this is politics we're talking about here and by 2012, George W. Bush will be a historical figure.)  The Democrats will not have the ability to stop deficit spending in any meaningful way, but they could in theory induce the Fed to raise interest rates on government debt, so the Administration could, in theory, do something to mitigate the problem. 

    But I predict that they will not.  Weak dollars will be the order of the day and an issue in 2012.  You read it here first.  This time, you really did.

    This Is Why You Didn't Like Ovid

    Sometimes, translation from one language to another -- whose primary eras of use are removed from one another by a thousand or more years of time -- causes poetry to lose its emotional impact.

    October 12, 2009

    A Party Of Antiscience

    Rick Moran has been running a great series of posts at Right Wing Nut House about the decline of intellectualism in modern conservatism.  And I can think of no more telling symptom of that problem than this tidbit pointed out by David Hume:  it appears that all of the likely Republican Presidential candidate for 2012 are creationists and deny evolution, and favor the "teach the controversy" position:

    Bobby Jindal "...has suggested that teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution may not be out of place in public schools."  He put his money where his mouth was on that issue, too, authorizing public school teachers to teach intelligent design and criticism of evolution.

    Tim Pawlenty is on record as defending Sarah Palin thusly:  "Intelligent design is something that, in my view, is plausible and credible and something that I personally believe in but, more importantly, from an educational and scientific standpoint, it should be decided by local school boards at the local school district level."

    Former Governor Palin herself has said of the subject:  "Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information.  Healthy debate is so important and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both."

    Mike Huckabee, for his part, tries as hard as he can to not answer direct questions about teaching intelligent design, which is what we lawyers call "tap dancing."  But there's little doubt that he actively disbelieves in evolution.

    Of the prominent Republicans out there right now, only Mitt Romney comes closest to actually embracing science -- and with trademark style, he tries to have things both ways:  "I believe God is intelligent and I believe he designed the creation. And I believe he used the process of evolution to create the human body."  Of course, in doing this, he is missing the point of evolution entirely -- if God guided evolution, then evolution isn't natural selection at work, but rather artificial selection, the way a dog breeder creates a daschund out of successive generations of larger hound dogs.

    For a guy who is in the middle of reading Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show On Earth, reciting mountains and mountains of evidence -- not just fossils -- for evolution, this is a bitter pill to swallow indeed.  No likely GOP candidate understands science and most of them subscribe to a "teach the controversy" policy platform.

    Teaching the controversy sounds like a politically palatable compromise, but there are plenty of "controversies" we shouldn't teach in public schools because the "other side" of the "theory" is simply not worthy of credulous presentation -- some of which at one time were accepted as the unimpeachable scientific truth and the state of the art of human knowledge.  These include:
    • Intelligent falling
    • The geocentric model of the solar system
    • Alien construction of the Great Pyramids
    • Cryptozoology (that is, Bigfoot, Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, Chupycabra, etc.)
    • The "stork theory" of human reproduction
    • Human health as the balance of the "four viscous humours" of phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, and blood
    • Santa Claus
    • Jerusalem-centric tricontinental global cartography
    There is no need to teach any of these "opposing theories" or subject the "conventional" theories to which they are opposed, because these "opposing theories" are laughably and demonstrably not science.  We should take into account a candidate's endorsement of teaching mythology in science class when evaluating that candidate's world view and suitability for office.  Treat a candidate for office who insists that both intelligent design and evolution should be taught in science class the same way you would treat a candidate who insists that the "stork theory" be taught in sex education.

    Which portends very poorly for the Republican party indeed.

    Paging Dr. Freud

    There's good dreams and then there's bad dreams and then there's dreams that wake you up in fear. My dreams are experienced in the first person, as I suspect most peoples' are -- I am an actor within my dream; I see and experience things in the dream world as though I were living them in the waking (that is, real) world.

    Sometimes I am able to exercise a small degree of conscious control over my dreams and "steer" them like Neo in The Matrix. Most of the time I cannot or at least do not do this; I go along for the ride and deal with the weird shifting realities that make up dreams.  Generally, dreaming is a pleasant or at least merely surreal experience, and almost always, dreams are evanescent, vanishing into nothingness within mere seconds of waking up.

    I react poorly, though, to dreams in which there is an element of violence. They usually wake me up and I have trouble falling back asleep. It does not seem to matter whether I am the victim of the violence or not -- I have a recurring dream of witnessing an act of violence that I am unable to prevent. It elicits a sense of dread and horror that lasts well after I wake up suddenly, sometimes crying out and scaring my wife. Worst of all are the dreams in which I engage in violence. Not only does the act of violence terrify me, it also leaves me riddled with feelings of remorse, self-doubt, and panic no matter how justified my own violence might have been while I was in Dream World. And since these dreams produce strong emotional responses, they are the ones which tend to remain vivid for a long time after waking up.

    This happened to me last night. Now, I had a very good reason in my Dream World to engage in violence (self-defense) but I'm not going to record the details here despite a vivid recollection of them. What I'm writing about is the fact that I'm still creeped out about it eighteen hours later. 

    Maybe other people have dreams of violence, too.  For someone who has experienced real, intense violence like military combat or being assaulted by a criminal, that makes a fair amount of sense.  But I have been blessed to have had a life largely free of any encounters with violence more intense than some pushing and shoving and a couple of unpleasant episodes with bullies as a young teenager. So why would I have dreams of violence at all, much less dreams in which I engage in the violence myself?

    Gratefully, for me such dreams are infrequent.  I lack the psychological scars a trauma victim would have.  I'm quite confident I'm not the only person who occasionally has violent or disturbing dreams and that it's very easy to read too much into one's dreams.  But I wonder what they mean, what kind of junk my subconscious mind is trying to sort out.