January 31, 2010

Why I Hate The Culture Wars

The American culture wars strike me as astonishingly silly and yet deeply scary at the same time.  It's hard to say what recent volley is more bothersome to me.

Could it be people who are getting The Diary Of Anne Frank pulled from school curricula because of its sexually explicit content?
Or could it be people who are getting the dictionary pulled from classrooms because of its sexually explicit content?

Or maybe bigots who want to literally criminalize homosexuality here in the United States, based on a tortured reading of the Bible?

Or could it be my elected representatives, who really ought to know better, unthinkingly saying that he's being "inclusive" when he proclaims his jurisdictions to be a "Christian city"?  (Lots of details here.)

All of this "culture war" nonsense seems to be predominantly powered by a simplistic, aggressively evangelical, and intolerant brand of Christianity.  Well, not all of it.  There's also Glenn Beck leading his Beckhead minions to decry fundamental principles of law.  Hey, Glenn Beck -- what you're criticizing in that segment is what lawyers have been doing since 1066!  It's not anything new and it didn't start with Roscoe Pound!*

I have a number of friends who are not religious or, among those who are religious, who somehow manage to not be frickin' insane about it and respect that other people might want to live their lives in different ways than them.  It is absolutely beyond me why anyone would want to reach in to my house or your house or anyone else's house and tell them how to live their lives or what books to read or what religion they ought to publicly subscribe to.

I guess it's useful to be roused out of my shell and realize that indeed there are lots and lots and lots of people out there who look out at the world and in particular our own nation and see something very, very different than I do.  I may be getting a little bit too complacent, having found people with whom I have surrounded myself who do not demand that others conform in lockstep to their social example.  I had thought that tolerance for other peoples' choices and ideas and personal decisions was part of what it was to be a free people.

Godsdamn it, why can't people just learn to mind their own business?  That goes in both directions, but the aggression seems to be coming from the right rather than the left.

*  If you want to criticize Roscoe Pound and his influence over American legal education, go right ahead.  Pound didn't invent the idea of case law analysis; he formalized a method of studying law through case law analysis that had been going on for clerks who were "reading the law" in private tutelage or Inns of Court for hundreds of years in the Anglo-American legal system, and that's pretty well above criticism.  What you could criticize Pound for is his exposition of indeterminacy as the inevitable result of the vicissitudes of political power as the foundational exponent of both statutory law and a politicized judicial nomination process.  But that doesn't make for a particularly good sound bite because pretty much only lawyers and political scientists even know what the previous sentence means.

January 28, 2010

Change Of Venue

So the word on the street is that the White House is looking for somewhere to have the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed other than lower Manhattan.  I think that's fine.

The Constitution requires that the trial take place in the same district that the crime took place.  So anywhere in the Southern District of New York, the Eastern District of Virginia, or the Western District of Pennsylvania will satisfy the Venue Clause.  A good argument can be made that since the intended target of United Flight 11 was either the White House or the Capitol, the District Court for the District of Columbia would also be satisfactory.  Further, one could argue that since two of the flights originated in Boston, the District of Massachusetts would work too.

A Step In The Wrong Direction

For the record, this is not taking budget deficit reduction seriously.

January 27, 2010

State Of The Union 2010

Thoughts as they occur to me:
  1. There are probably a lot of people out there more interested in the premiere of the iPad than in the President laying out his agenda for the next year.
  2. The whole Supreme Court is right there.  Alito looks so -- small -- compared to Obama.
  3. Obama's Desire to associate with Lincoln continues.  Rhetorically compares our recession to the Civil War.  I don't think it's quite that bad.
  4. Joe Biden is a terrible actor.  He so clearly wants to be the one giving the speech, not sitting behind and watching it be given.  He doesn't fool me with those frowning nods of agreement.  And he's early on the applause.  Maybe he helped out with the rehearsals.  Or, more likely, he didn't so he doesn't know when the punctuations for applause are.
  5. Same for John Kerry as the camera pans over him.  McCain is harder to read. 
  6. Is John McCain really rocking the sweater vest during the State of the Union?  Maybe he doesn't plan on running for re-election.  Oh, wait, he does.  (And a second pan reveals that it was whoever is sitting next to him who was rocking the sweater vest, someone who looks significantly older than McCain.  My apologies, Senator.)
  7. Dianne Feinstein not only applauds but stands up for "we all hated the bank bailout."
  8. Tim Geithner needs to learn about collar stays.  Seriously, they're not that expensive, Mr. Secretary.
  9. Populism!  Do I hear populism against banks from the President himself?  I think I may need to have a drink.  Actually, I already do.
  10. You cut taxes?  NOT MINE, YOU LIAR!  Sit down and quit applauding all you craven Congresscritters.
  11. Haven't raised taxes on a single person?  That actually wasn't what you promised to do, you know.
  12. Lieberman looks like he ate a lemon.
  13. Hmm.  Turns out everyone is in favor of jobs.  Republicans and Democrats stood up and applauded at that.  Oh, and everyone's in favor of America's businesses.  Especially small businesses.  Wow, maybe this government stuff is easier than it looks!
  14. Mervyn Dymally looks awful.  Is he sick?  Henry Waxman is showing his age but he looks healthy.
  15. Flooding the SBA with low-interest money.  Some Republicans look like they've just been asked to sacrifice their pet puppies on the altar of job creation.  Ah, but eliminate capital gains taxes and they know to applaud that.
  16. How much of this is just applause?  The speech would be fifteen minutes long if the President weren't getting interrupted by his cheerleaders all the time.
  17. Rebates, tax credits, and tax rate cuts.  This sounds like the opposite of keeping the budget under control.
  18. Damn I'm glad I have some tequila handy.
  19. A lot of emphasis on competition with other countries.  Germany and Japan and China have lots of education, fast trains, and all this.  But President Obama "does not accept second place" for the USA.  You know, it doesn't much matter.  Maybe I read James Fallows too recently.
  20. "I am not interested in punishing banks."  Immediately the camera flashes to Chris Dodd.  Someone at CNN has a sense of humor.
  21. This is not all that different from a campaign speech.  It sounds like there are a lot of specifics and a lot of knowledge but it really isn't all that detailed.  But it sure makes me feel good.  You know, on the other hand, that's kind of what Democrats need to be doing and saying if they want to hold on to power in 2010.
  22. More nuclear power plants!  Hey, someone important is finally listening to me!
  23. More offshore oil and gas development -- and Nancy Pelosi applauds?  I thought she was from San Francisco.
  24. There is no such thing as clean coal, Mr. President.
  25. Frankly, I question the value of reducing the trade deficit.  If we're making money the trade deficit doesn't matter.  Exports are great and manufacturing is great but again, the question is a low threshold that is above a critical mass.
  26. Free trade -- Republicans support this and Democrats sit on their hands.  Same as expanding free trade zones into Chila, Panama, and Colombia.  Then on enforcing trade agreements, it's the opposite.  Bipartisanship at last!  I wouldn't have thought any of that was partisan.  Free trade makes good economic sense.
  27. He's doing more of the hand-clasp thing.  Maybe that's how he uses the podium.  But he always winds up resting with his fingers intertwined right in front of the mike.
  28. Tax credits for student loans, increased Pell Grants, caps on student loan payments in amount and time, forgiveness for old student loan debt.  Sounds great, but I thought we were looking at reducing the deficit, Mr. President.  Also sounds like a bank might not be able to make money on student loans.
  29. More home mortgage refis?  Who's going to pay for that?
  30. Why on Earth are Republicans standing and applauding for the idea of health care reform?
  31. Starting to feel the tequila.
  32. You know, this isn't the best Obama speech I've ever heard.  I think his acceptance speech was the best.  This is well below his inaugural address and his "speech on race" from the campaign.  There just isn't a lot of inspiration here.  I'm not getting a lot of vision or emotion, especially as we're delving deeper and deeper and deeper into a meta-discussion about the politics of health care reform.  There's not even an explanation of why we need health care reform.
  33. Michelle Obama is a very good looking woman.
  34. Now at least we're getting some emotional appeal for health care reform.  Took you long enough, Mr. President.
  35. The plan you've proposed?  You didn't propose anything, Mr. President.  You called for health care reform, and then you picked and chose ideas from DLC Senators, Mr. President.  The "White House" proposal is a modified form of the pending Senate proposal.
  36. Neat rhetorical trick -- health care reform is good for deficit reduction.  Doesn't make it true.
  37. We inherited the bad economy.  Then the shot at McCain?  McCain was, and is, the biggest hawk the Republicans have.  Howsabout we cut to a remote shot of former President Bush the Younger watching from his home in Crawford?
  38. Top-down shot of Congress, as in professional football, reveals no useful information.
  39. You are not going to freeze spending for three years.  "National security, medicare, medicaid, and social security will not be affected."  You just promised to control 23% of the budget, Mr. President.  Excuse me if I'm not as impressed as I ought to be.  An across-the-board freeze would make more sense as a starting point.
  40. This "Bipartisan Fiscal Commission" sounds exactly like one of those Washington gimmicks that pretends to solve problems.  I fail to see how a subdivision of Congress, which has proven itself to be wholly and totally incapable of cutting any spending whatsoever, will do any better than the whole.  So color me cynical.
  41. Damn.  CNN feed froze.
  42. Oh, I see.  Sun Microsystems chose right now to release a new update for Java which downloaded in the background while I'm watching streaming video and Windows Vista decided to use this exact moment to ask me for permission to update it.
  43. No, I do not want to install Octoshape Grid Delivery Enhancement on my computer.  I want to watch the State of the Union address.  He hadn't even got to national security or war issues yet.  Reload, damnit!
  44. Sure, everyone's in favor of earmark reform in theory.  Except John Kerry.
  45. Now he's getting down in the trenches and taking on the filibuster rule and saying that Republicans now have a share of leadership.  Query if overt references to partisanship qualifies as "statesmanlike" or the way a President ought to address Congress.  Maybe it's smart politics.  Maybe not.  It doesn't seem Presidential, like he's somehow elevated above it all.  I'll have to think about that.
  46. "Reject the false choice between national security and our values."  Now he's actually speaking my language.  Because I'm right and I have been all along about this.  We don't have to choose.
  47. Is he going to talk about Yemen?  Afghanistan?
  48. Lamar Alexander said on NPR that if Obama talked about jobs, debt, and terrorism, in that order, and then stopped, he would be satisfied.  In fact, Obama has talked about jobs, debt, health care reform, partisan politics, and terrorism in that order.  That's pretty close to what Senator Alexander said.
  49. We will NOT be out of Iraq by August.  Oh, please.  This war is not ending and not all of our troops are coming home.  See, "we will continue to partner with the Iraqi people."
  50. It's been about an hour.  Time to start wrapping this up, Mr. President.  I'm thinking about another drink now that the margarita is long gone.  Two cheese enchiladas and a margarita isn't quite enough to get me through this.
  51. Some Democrat failed to stand up and applaud during the obligatory tough talk on Iran.  He was too busy tweeting something from his cell phone -- which I thought was not a device allowed on the floor of the House.
  52. I'm guessing the guy between the staff sergeant and the political flack, sitting behind the First Lady is the President of Haiti.  I'm glad he survived the earthquake.
  53. Human rights?  You were going to finish strong by asking for a commitment to veterans, Mr. President, and now we're going to talk about international human rights?
  54. Yep, Biden is over-emoting.  He's a ham.  The President talks about some Constitutional law and it looks like Biden is choking back tears.  Only I don't believe it, he's too cynical and over-experienced.
  55. "Repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell" and the Admirals and Generals sit there quietly.  Both parties applaud that.  Why hasn't DADT not been repealed already?
  56. No one from the Supreme Court seems to be applauding about anything.  I guess that's appropriate -- indeed, why are they there at all?  Of all the high-ranking officers of the country, they are supposed to be the most removed from partisan and political struggles.
  57. "Democracy in a nation of 300,000,000 people can be noisy and messy."  Is this the peroration?  Really, this is not his best speech.  I'm getting bored and I'm a political junkie.
  58. We're going on five continuous minutes about nothing.  We're done here, Mr. President, take us out.  Three examples of Americans doing and saying inspiring things.  
  59. "We don't quit and I don't quit!"  Yes, but you should leave the stage now.
  60. What about Yemen?  Hell, what about Afghanistan?
  61. Really very few calls to action, either for the people as a whole or for Congress specifically.  Certainly nothing memorable.
  62. My overall impression is that Obama is uncertain about his own political strength.  Not without good cause.  He had a throwaway line about setbacks within his own administration.  He took at least two swipes at Democrats in Congress for not being able to get their acts together and practically begged Republicans to start working with him.  There is certainly no sweeping White House agenda for Congress to react to -- Obama does not seem to think himself capable of leading such an agenda.  Oh, sure, he'd say different if asked that question directly and in those terms, but the proof is in the pudding and this was a modest, tentative, and uninspiring speech from someone who has proven himself a master of rhetoric and oratorical emotion.
Full text here.  It's longer than the posts where I take on Biblical apologists.  More cause for skepticism, and fact-checking suggesting that the much-ballyhooed spending freeze will reduce the growth of the deficit by less than one percent, brought to you by that well-known Republican news shill organization, the Associated Press.

We're Not Doing This To Make Money

San Francisco, 1981:

Money quote: "It takes two hours at $5.00 per hour to get the newspaper, so the online newspaper isn't going to be much competition for the twenty-cent version you can buy on the street." That sentence seems almost as outdated as telling someone who walks into your office that they need to wait because you're on a long-distance telephone call.  The economics look a little different when I can get the whole paper for free in less than two seconds as opposed to having to pay a buck fifty for the Sunday Fish Wrapper after driving forty miles to the nearest actual newstand run by a human being, or even one mile to the nearest vending machine.

Hat tip to Jules Crittenden. (Via.)

January 26, 2010

Mr. Freeze Picks Up A Very Small Hatchet

Here's the problem:  the way things are going, we're going to have a deficit of $1.35 tillion this year.  I have been alive long enough to remember when the national debt was that much.  Okay, not really, but it is a staggering amount of money for the government to be overspending on an annual basis.

So the solution is, I have always thought, rather obvious.  The first step towards getting out of debt is to not incur any more debt.  Therefore, Congress needs to stop passing budgets with substantial deficits.  Over time, we will pay down our long-term debt and can get back to having an ambitious government when we can afford it.  Now, to be sure, the government will never get completely out of debt; it can't not be in debt because short-term debt is necessary to ensure continuous operation of government functions while tax inflow is uneven.  But we can, over time, get to a place where we do not have any long-term debt to service.  Yes, I know some guys dream of having two girls at the same time; some guys dream of playing in the Super Bowl -- but I say, dare to dream of a world in which there is no such thing as a 30-year T-bill.

So the President has now floated the policy balloon of a three-year spending freeze on certain government programs.  Progressives are having fits of apoplexy about this.  So much for their dreams of an expanded government taking an activist hand in helping peoples' lives improve or, if you prefer, their dreams of a dramatic increase to the heavy foot of statism to restrict individual freedoms in pursuit of a wooly-eyed nirvana of command economies and bureaucratic government.  Their savior, their champion, their beautiful paladin in the White House, has sold out.  After all, didn't he campaign on opposing exactly such a maneuver?

But frankly, I don't think there's much choice. I've been saying for a long time that this day had to come, and it wouldn't matter all that much who would be in the White House when it did.  Indeed, I've been saying for a long time that this day is long overdue.  And a freeze is not the same thing as a cut.  Where my idea of a strong cut leading to a thirty-year paydown of our long-term debt requires an immediate and painful sacrifice and a long-term diminishment in the scope of what we expect the government to do for us, President Obama is much more modest than I would be.

He is proposing only talking about a freeze in social programs, a freeze which is not really a freeze in the sense that it is indexed for inflation, and a freeze which exempts defense spending and homeland security, foreign aid, the V.A., Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.  In case you weren't keeping track, those things are nearly seven-tenths of the federal budget.  No one can do anything about the cost of servicing old debt, which is another eight cents on the federal dollar right now.

So tomorrow night when you hear President Obama announce his desire for a spending freeze in the State of the Union address, bear in mind that 1) he's only talking about 23% of government spending, and 2) spending levels in real dollars will remain constant over time even within those programs.  Failure to increase a budget is not the same thing as cutting it. 

This is not a deficit-reduction proposal.  It is a growth-of-the-deficit reduction proposal.  Don't get me wrong, it's a step in the right direction and the protests and revolts Obama will have to face from within his own party are evidence of how difficult and painful this process will be.  So in that sense, I applaud the President for making the proposal at all, no matter how modest it really is.

But don't think he's taking a chainsaw to the government.  This is the scalpel, not the hatchet.

Appropos Of The Current Debate

This one's for my new friend Ennis.

Perhaps Not The Most Compelling Of All Reasons To Avoid Prison

In an opinion that demonstrates just how astonishingly deferential the "rational basis" standard for governmental actions can be, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has permitted a Wisconsin prison to ban inmates from playing Dungeons and Dragons or possessing any D&D related material.

The little lead figurines, I can understand.  Those could be molded into weapons, and the lead is soft enough to be pliable in one's hand while still strong enough to actually cut something or be good at gouging out someone's eye.  But lead figurines are really old-school.  I don't think there's a lot of figurine-moving going on any more.  When I played D&D as a kid in the 1980's, my dorky friends and I didn't use them and wouldn't have really wanted to if we had them.

As to the rationale underlying the rule, I quote both the opinion and then Prof. Ilya Somin of the always-excellent Volokh Conspiracy:
The sole evidence the prison officials have submitted on this point [the connection between D&D and gangs] is the affidavit of Captain Muraski, the gang specialist. Muraski testified that Waupun’s prohibition on role-playing and fantasy games was intended to serve two purposes. The first aim Muraski cited was the maintenanceof prison security. He explained that the policy was intended to promote prison security because cooperative games can mimic the organization of gangs and lead to the actual development thereof. Muraski elaborated that during D&D games, one player is denoted the “Dungeon Master.” The Dungeon Master is tasked with giving directions to other players, which Muraski testified mimics the organization of a gang.

This argument is, I think, too weak to bother refuting — even if it is just barely compelling enough to pass muster under the rational basis test. By this “reasoning,” you could ban the “cooperative game” of football because “during football games, one player is denoted the ‘quarterback.’ The quarterback is tasked with giving directions to other players.”
But, of course, the rational basis test is the ultimate example of giving the government room to be wrong. It doesn't matter if the information that the government's decision is based on is incorrect so long as it seems credible; it doesn't matter if the government's response to this incorrect information is on its face asinine, so long as the rule bears some rational relation to some legitimate problem the government might wish to try and solve, even if its solution is apparently counter-productive.

I won't argue that D&D is a good thing for prisoners to be doing although I would suggest that for some people it can actually be a good aid for the development of certain kinds of mental skills, both left-brained and right-brained. But I would argue that, without more information about what the prisoners were doing within or related to their game, it's presumptively harmless. It's not like they're going to really learn how to cast fireball spells or psionically communicate with griffins to break out of their cells.  Yes, some of the (imaginary) in-game combat might be considered rather violent, but as a practical matter you can't stop prisoners from talking about real-life violence, so really, what's the big deal about having them talk about fantasy violence?

All in all, a very silly ruling responding to a very silly lawsuit.

January 25, 2010

Rub The Lamp And The Genie Grants A Wish

Direct from the source:  "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president," said President Barack Obama.  Well, he's on his way to getting half that wish granted -- right now it looks like he's on his way to turning in to this guy, minus the military service.  Plus the same kind of apparent corruption which he condemned in his predecessor.


I've little more to add to the Unreligious Right than is already there -- giving a sixteen-year-old rape victim 101 lashes with a whip for the crime of becoming pregnant as a result of the rape, and acquitting the rapist of any wrongdoing -- is at the core of why Americans distrust Islam and majority-Islamic nations.  It is barbarism, an ethic left over from the seventh century, cruel, the opposite of justice, and deeply shocking and outrageous to anyone with the moral sense that comes naturally to a piranha.

Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Day Ten

A great coup for a trial attorney is to get the other side's expert to admit that you're right about the part of your case that he has been called to testify about.  David Boies pulled that off today -- the first defense witness in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger trial described the Federal Defense of Marriage Act as official discrimination against gays and lesbians.  Which shows that the guy is intellectually honest, at least.  Still, that's the sort of thing you'd have expected a plaintiff's witness to have said in trial.  It's unclear if he made a similar pronouncement against Prop. 8 itself, although it's hard to see how he could not, given the very similar wording between Prop. 8 and DOMA.  Seems to me the defense would be better off saying, "Well, of course it discriminates against gays and lesbians.  We can do that, because we're the State of California and homosexuality is not a suspect class under the Federal Constitution."  That, however, would be a legal and not a factual argument.

Hat tip to Box Turtle Bulletin.

Joe Klein Isn't Paying Attention

Attention, Americans!  Joe Klein thinks you're stupid.  Specifically, he thinks you're stupid ingrates.  The $787 billion stimulus package -- most of you agree with me that it was wasted.  Why?
Nearly three out of four Americans think that at least half of the money spent in the federal stimulus plan has been wasted, according to a new national poll.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Monday morning also indicates that 63 percent of the public thinks that projects in the plan were included for purely political reasons and will have no economic benefit, with 36 percent saying those projects will benefit the economy.
 But, Joe Klein protests, "the largest single item in the package--$288 billion--is tax relief for 95% of the American public. This money is that magical $60 to $80 per month you've been finding in your paycheck since last spring."  Well, you've lost me there, Joe Klein.  Because despite the next item you point to in glowing terms -- "$275 billion in grants and loans to states" -- I haven't found any magical $60 to $80 per month in my paychecks.  My taxes have gone up.  And that's not just from the fact that California is now withholding more in state taxes (a forced loan of my money to the state, which is a questionable credit risk in my estimation) but in fact my Federal taxes have increased, too.  I'm taking home less money in objective dollars now than I did in 2009.

So maybe I'm part of the 5% of Americans who saw tax increases.  But that would have put me in the bracket of those whom Obama said he would seek repeal of the Bush tax cuts, meaning that between The Wife and I, we'd have an income of at least $250,000 a year.  And that has not happened yet, at least not as of the publication date of this post.  No, I was promised on September 12, 2008, that my taxes would not increase:
I can make a firm pledge. Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.

This is, that hasn't happened.  The opposite has.  It's not dramatic; my take-home is now about $200 less per month than it was in 2008.  Most of that decrease is from California stealing withholding more.  But not all.

So what's happened with that money?  (Money we borrowed from your grandchildren.)  I don't think there's a whole lot of good explanation for that.  It seems to have vanished.  I see signs advertising new road construction here and there, but for the most part they're slapping on a new layer of blacktop on the roads in question.  This is the smart infrastructure we were promised?

Now, Klein is right about some of his complaint. Some of this money hasn't been wasted because it hasn't been spent yet.  Like upgrades to our power infrastructure, likely to be the equivalent of the new blacktop I find on a poorly-traveled road in a declining section of my home town.  So, we've already appropriated money to be wasted in the future.  But no, it hasn't yet been wasted.

Real Life Follows This Blog

As I predicted several days ago, and for which I earned spectacular linkage for so predicting, Democrats are abandoning the idea of running against George W. Bush.  This time, you really did read it here first.

Curious George, Interpreted By Werner Herzog

Quite possibly the funniest thing I've seen in weeks:

"Ziss should giff you a dim view of human potential." That, folks, is unalloyed comedy gold. Hat tip to Edge of the American West.

Dialogue With Apologists Always Reach This Point

My latest apologist interloquitor and I are starting to narrow down the issues somewhat in a dialogue aiming to tease out the real moral lessons of the Bible.  We've agreed to cross-post our responses, and I'm concerned that stand-alone posts without context will be confusing to a third-party reader, so I provide a summary of the discussion so far first, and then my latest entry into the discussion.  I've jumped most of it because I know there are some Readers here with no appetite for this sort of thing.  If you are not one of them, please read on.

January 24, 2010

Critter Stories For Sunday

Dogs in Moscow learn how to use the subway.  At least one cat in London has learned how to take the bus to get fish and chips.

European pets must be smarter than those of us Americans.  At least judging by our own critters, American house pets are smart enough to look cute and meow loudly when they're hungry.  And they know what claw clippers look like to run from us.  Aside from that -- if they get out of the yard, there is no way they're smart enough to find their own way home later.

Links from Richard Dawkins.

January 22, 2010

Huxley or Orwell

The most famous dystopian author was George Orwell.  But was the the most accurate?  Depressingly, this cartoon seems to hit the nail right on the head.  Fits my mood for the evening.\

Hat tip to Patrick.

Oh Grow Up

On the Huffington Post, we now read that Senator-Elect Scott Brown (R-MA)'s wife Gail Hoff is a very attractive woman.  How attractive is she?  She's so attractive, she was cast in a truly awful music video from some bland 80's Europop group that did a song called "The Girl With The Curious Hand" in which the then-single future-Mrs.-Senator-Brown suggestively squeezes a tube of suntan lotion while looking tartly at the camera.

I suppose the sugestion from this leftist agitprop land is that apparently Gail Hoff uses her hand to perform a particular kind of sex act on her husband from time to time.  With the implied coda, "...the slut." 

Apparently because a good-looking woman made a goofy music video twenty-five years ago and went on to marry a guy who got elected to a half term in the U.S. Senate, we are now supposed to once again have some kind of a national dialogue about other people having sex, and watch our talking heads compete for the most ostentatious displays of alternating prudishness and prurience, and reach some sort of uncomfortable accord concerning women playfully jerking their husbands off, the way we did with oral sex during the Bill Clinton impeachment.  Are dozens of women going to take to the airwaves, chins held high and shoulders held back, loudly saying "I like to burp my husband's worm and I'm proud to do it!" and have parents facing awkward moments with their kids when they ask about what it means to diddle a dude's ding-dong?

Because I'd frankly rather skip all that.  If we must mention this at all, a throwaway joke or two from Jimmy Kimmel will suffice.

Oh, I have so many questions about this, starting with:  Who cares?  This is supposed to somehow embarass or discredit either Senator Brown or his wife?  Really?   Is this supposed to somehow be playing political hard ball? This is the progressives' revenge for Brown getting elected to what was once but is no longer Teddy Kennedy's seat?  What on Earth is the Huffington Post doing even bothering with this tripe? Haven't they demeaned themselves enough as it is?

So, thanks to the Huffington Post, the entire world now knows that an attractive member of the United States Congress and his attractive wife possibly might enjoy privately engaging in a healthy, harmless, and consensual sex act.  Which is entirely different from the old way of doing things, which was to choose unattractive Members of Congress, and then observe the consequences when they somewhat more publicly enjoyed sex acts of questionable consensuality and varying degrees of harmfulness.  I officially pronounce that state of affairs to be "not a scandal" and instruct you to complete your hand job-related jokes immediately, and then return in an orderly fashion to the soul-deadening and interminable debate over health care reform.

January 21, 2010

The Massacre Of Moab

In my now-famous post Top Ten Worst Bible Stories, I singled out the Massacre of the Midianites in Deuteronomy 7:1-6 and Numbers 31:1-18 for particular criticism.  It is, in fact, a story of genocide, the bloodthirsty and unprovoked annihalation of a people who had done nothing that we can look at today as having been even remotely morally equivalent to what they suffered at the hands of Jehovah's followers.

An intrepid, intelligent, and earnest apologist has taken on my challenge to offer a justification for this story.  I suggest that if you have interest in this exchange, you read his apology for it first, and then come back to the balance of this very long analysis, that appears below after the jump.

January 20, 2010

Parenting Fail

No one should name their children using acronyms.  Doing so to honor your favorite professional sports team is a particularly flagrant violation of what should have been an unnecessary-to-enunciate social norm.

To My International Readers

All the fuss about the United States’ new Senator, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, may have left non-U.S. watchers of political events here more than a little confused. You might get the impression that President Obama is now out of power, or politically on the ropes, or that somehow the Republicans have taken control of the government from underneath Obama.

This is not the case. Democrats still have firm control over both houses of our Congress. As you might know, our national legislature is divided into two houses, and both of them are and have been under the control of the Democratic Party since 2006. The question is one of how much control they have. One of the two houses of Congress is called the Senate and there is a tradition in the Senate called the “filibuster.” Basically, no Senator interrupts another Senator while they are talking. This allows even a single Senator to give a very long speech, and the rest of the Senate has to wait and listen to him (or her) and cannot vote on anything until the Senator is done. We’ve had instances in our history when Senators have tried to stop laws from passing by literally reading telephone directories out loud.

Yes, I know that's a shockingly inefficient way to do things. That’s why there’s something called “cloture.” When one Senator is doing this, another Senator can gather the signatures of his colleagues on a petition, and if there are enough of them, they can force the Senate to vote on whether or not to interrupt the one who is speaking and cut his speech off. In order for that to happen, there has to be a super-majority, and the limit has been set by the rules of the Senate at 60 votes. So if one Senator is talking and talking to prevent the Senate from acting, if 60 of his colleagues agree, then he can be cut off.

Until Tuesday, the Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate, so if they kept perfect party discipline, they could break a filibuster and do what they want despite whatever objections the Republicans might have. Scott Brown is a Republican who is replacing a Democrat, and that means that now the Democrats have only 59 votes. That’s still a significant margin of majority.  What Scott Brown's election means is that if both parties keep perfect discipline, the Democrats cannot use closture to stop the Republicans from shutting down the Senate with a filibuster.

See, our political parties aren’t like European political parties; if one Senator were to switch sides on a particular issue, there would not be much the parties could do to hurt him for doing it. So please don’t think that we’ve had some kind of dramatic re-alignment in political power here in the U.S.A. The President’s political party has suffered a setback; its formerly "overwhelming advantage" has now diminished to merely a "strong advantage."

The real problem with the President’s party is that it is too poorly-organized to have put together a health care reform on its own even when its advantage was overwhelming as opposed to "merely" strong. I speak in this post about perfect party discipline, which is a difficult thing for Republicans do to and a practical impossibility for the Democrats. There are a lot of reasons for that which I don’t have time to get into in this post, but here’s what you beyond the borders of the States really need to understand: American political institutions are designed so that it’s very difficult for any one party to take and sustain an overwhelming political advantage. The political balance of power is always going to seesaw back and forth; we’ve built our political system to virtually guarantee that this happens pretty much constantly. Both the basic disorganization of the majority party and the victory of a minority party candidate in our recent election are two of the many different ways that institutional dynamic plays out.

That is all.  You may return now to your bizarre fascinations with existentialism, soccer, and smoking, and thank you for your attention.

Thanks For Lighting Up My Blog

Welcome, Readers from The Atlantic.  Some of  you will be wondering whether I'm "liberal" or "conservative."  Proudly, I evade easy categorization.  I refer you here for a comprehensive list of my political beliefs.  Oh, noes, some will have to actually think about the issues rather than membership in a tribe.

I've already been mocked as a "Broderist" with my idealistic longings for political parties that actually talk to and compromise with one another about crafting good policy rather than simply exerting their will on the body politic, so you can call me whatever names you like after that.

Anyway, thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the link.  You all should feel free to link or subscribe too.  As an aside, Sullivan's kung fu is about as good as Hugh Hewitt's was a few months ago at driving traffic to the site.

January 18, 2010

Jesus Guns (UPDATED)

It turns out, the military has for years been buying sights and guns from a Michigan manufacturer which contain Biblical references -- at what looks like the tail end of the serial number, you'll find a code that looks something like JN8:12 (Gospel of John, chapter 8, verse 12: "Then Jesus said again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life").  You can get a good look at the sights and scopes here.

Now, you might say, "Our soliders need guns and the guns need sights and these sights work.  So what?"  The "so what" is that our enemies very much want to gain political support in their own countries and constituencies to say that America is guilty of making war on Islam.  So when we have references to Christian gospel verses literaly emblazoned on our guns, the claim that we are forcing Christianity on Muslims literally at gunpoint gains at least some cachet.  After all, we've got Christianity literally on our guns.  Stipulated that these may well be the best gunsights ever made by anyone.  We shouldn't be handing our enemies ammunition for propaganda even if we have a much better system for delivering a more traditional kind of ammunition than they do.

The company's defense, by the way, is that they've been doing this for years.  To that, I say, "So what?"  If it's been years since I killed anyone, I'm still a murderer, and just because the manufacturer has been violating government procurement regulations for years does not mean that it's an okay thing to do.  Especially when the political stakes are as high as they are.  Just a day or so ago, the Taliban staged an open attack on the streets of Kabul (link has video and audio that auto-starts, shame on you, BBC).  It's becoming popular to think that we have no interests in Afghanistan, but I really don't want to see those bastards win and re-take the country.  This is the sort of thing that they can use to gain new recruits and new strength.

Just as I call for a secular attitude of the government towards religious activities at home, we should have a military that uses secular weapons when it makes war.  I hadn't ever particularly thought that this might be an issue, but frankly, I think it's bullshit.  We shouldn't be in the business of shooting people with Jesus guns.

UPDATE (1/22/2010):   Trijicon has issued a statement indicating that it will stop this.  Good.

The Second Coming Brought To You By Douchebags

On second thought, I should retitle the post since these guys aren't really douchebags so much as doofuses.

Why Republicans May Eventually Regret Scott Brown's Victory In Massachusettes

No, Republicans will not come to regret Senator Scott Brown because he is not conservative.  He is still a Republican, he will still tend to vote with Republicans on most issues, and most importantly, his presence as a 41st Republican in the Senate will break the Democrats of their arrogant presumption that they can simply do what they like, when they like.

That is why Republicans will eventually come to realize that there is a downside to his surprising show of strength in Massachusetts.  What is happening in the Bay State now will graphically demonstrate to Democrats as a whole, and individual Democrats, that they cannot coast to victory everywhere and in all places, that they cannot leave their campaigning skills at home simply because they can associate themselves with Barack Obama and the governing majority, that they cannot run a successful campaign in 2010 against George Bush.

That's the big deal.  The theme for 2010 was going to be "Blame Bush."  Why Democrats would think that two years after Bush was forced out of office and not even an option anymore, why they would think that two years in to the term, they could say thing like, "Huh, what an awful economy!  We in-hair-it-ed it!" and get a good response from the electorate, why they would not think people might notice when they spout nonsense like "A Republican created this bad economy and now we have to take the blame!" is beyond me.  Much less the basic incompatibility of running against an out-of-office Republican while their own President says things like "There are always folks who think that the best way to solve these problems are to demonize others and, unfortunately, we're seeing some of that politics in Massachusetts today," and then they can turn around and demonize George Bush instead of offering actual solutions to the problems and reaping the electoral rewards for doing so.

No, at a certain point, the Democrats bought it, and now it's theirs.  All theirs.  And (surprise!) they haven't solved all the problems, they haven't turned the economy around -- or at least, it doesn't feel like they have.  Real estate prices still  feel depressed, unemployment is still high, retail activity is still sluggish, credit is still tight, gasoline is still expensive.  The only sign of a Carter-era economy we're missing is inflation and that might start to creep up on us too.  (Don't say you weren't warned about this.)  And therefore, the strategies and themes that worked well for them in 2008 aren't going to work well now.  They need to think of new things to say.  Ultimately, they need to find some good news to tell because when you're an incumbent you need to tell the voters good news.  Yes, it's easier to tell the voters bad news, play to their fears, and use the sexy word "change" but those are tactics that work best for insurgents and not incumbents.  Democrats need to act like they are the status quo now, because that's what they are.

What's more, the presence of 41 Republicans in the Senate, as I noted yesterday, will require the Democrats who still have a significant majority in the Senate to sit down and bargain with the Republicans.  The majority party will have to listen to and at least make a small concession to the policy concerns of the minority party.  The majority's desired policies will have to be diluted in order to move out of Congress.  Regardless of which party is in power and which party is in the minority, that's presumptively a good thing.  And it also means that it creates ambiguous policies, ones which will contain elements that can be assigned to the minority Republicans, and create credible arguments in the next election for why the policies have not brought about Elysium on Earth which, after all, is what the voters were promised instead of the drudging, grim, and decidedly un-fun reality they have to deal with daily.

So it now appears at least as likely as not that the seat that has been held by Teddy Kennedy for as long as I have had memory will be taken by a (moderate) Republican.  And the result of that is that the beatback Democrats had coming for them in November of this year is previewed.  Smart Democrats will react to this by changing up their game.  If Republicans want to be smart, they don't need to change their game so much; they're out of power so they can do all the usual insurgency tactics.  The Democrats, however, are getting a bellwether that what they're bringing to the game now isn't going to be good enough and they just might think of a way to better preserve their majority status.

January 17, 2010

Massachusetts Update

All indications are that the Republican candidate, Scott Brown, has taken the polling lead, on the eve of the election. I think this will be a nail-biter myself; I have a lot of trouble imagining any Republican cruising to victory in Massachusetts. It's not impossible, though, and there is reason to think that the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority will be broken on Tuesday. This will not mean the Democrats will lose their governing majority in Congress; it means that they must pay more than lip service to Republican concerns. Which is as it should be.

January 16, 2010

Special Relationships

There are relationships out there that may once have been contractual but now I suggest that they are properly viewed, at best, as three-party contracts and more properly ought no longer to be treated as contractual at all.  First-year law students will recall that at its fundament, a contract requires one party to make an offer of whatever terms that party wants, another party to accept that offer agreeing with those terms, and the parties to then exchange valuable consideration congruent with the terms of the bargain. 

Two relationships which are at the base of some of our most important social relationships are called contracts but I suggest to you that they really aren't.  I refer, of course, to employment and marriage.

To be sure, the employment relationship has contract at its fundament.  I sell you my time for an agreed-upon rate, and you may then tell me what to do with that time.  We are both absolutely free to form or terminate the relationship at will and to include whatever terms of the relationship we wish.  Only:
  • You may not refuse to form this relationship with me based upon my race, my national origin, my religious beliefs, my marital status, whether I have children or not, my gender, my age over 40, disabilities that do not absolutely bar me from performing the job, my age, or my advocacy or lack thereof of union membership and in a variety states around the USA, based upon my sexual preference, expression of political beliefs, prior military service or lack thereof, and countless other factors.  Thus, you cannot simply hire whoever you like to do whatever job is in question and thus your freedom to contract as you like is curtailed by law.
  • I must prove to you my eligibility to be employed in the form of documentary proof of my citizenship and age. Again, you cannot hire whoever you like; the law curtails your freedom.
  • I must provide you with my social security number so that you can withhold a fraction of the money you promised to pay me and pay it to the government instead.  Here the law curtails my freedom.
  • The rate that we agree upon that you will compensate me for my time may not fall below a certain minimum.  Both of our freedoms are curtailed here, although I might like it.
  • Under most circumstances, the time that I sell you may not exceed a certain maximum per day and per week, and if it does, the rate that you pay for my time increases.
  • You cannot pay me when we agree, but rather must do so at least once every two weeks. Furthermore, you must pay me with a check and cannot pay me with cash or non-monetary consideration, even if we agree otherwise.
  • You must provide me with not just the money that we agree upon but also certain mandatory benefits, primarily accounting and prepayment of taxes on my behalf.
  • If you promise me something of value other than just money (for instance, health insurance), you must also provide accounting and supervisory benefits concomitant with those non-monetary benefits as well.
  • You must provide me with workers' compensation insurance, unemployment insurance, and disability insurance, whether I want them or not.  You must purchase this unemployment insurance and disability insurance from the government and your failure to do so would be a crime.
  • You may not punish or retaliate against me either before, during, or after our employment relationship if I make a claim for benefits on the workers' compensation insurance or unemployment insurance that you are required to provide for me, or if I get sick, or if I accuse you of discriminating against me based on my race, age, religion, gender, national origin, union advocacy, parental status, marital status, or in some states veteran status, sexual preference, or political advocacy, or if I accuse or threaten to accuse you of engaging in illegal activity, whether those accusations are ultimately proven correct or not.
  • You must allow me to not work during the times that you would prefer I work if I am sick, injured, disabled -- or at least, if I can find a doctor willing to say that I am.
  • Further, under most circumstances you must allow me to take time out in the middle of the day to rest and eat, with greater amounts of time involved on a sliding scale as you demand more and more of my time.  After a certain point, I cannot waive and agree with you that I will not take this mandatory rest time during the day.
  • You cannot require me to work in just any conditions you please but instead must provide me with a working environment reasonable to the job at hand, even if I agree to work in unreasonable conditions.
This doesn't look like a freely-negotiated contractual arrangement to me.  And it's certainly not an arrangement between just you and me.  The government, at both the state and national levels, is intimately involved and indeed the government looks like it's pretty much micromanaging the details of our relationship.  Perhaps we'd have reached similar sorts of arrangements if we were both infinitely sophisticated and had equal bargaining strength in the negotiations, but perhaps not -- and that's the point; the result of the agreement between you and I for you to employ me will not be a reflection of our respective bargaining strengths.  And in addition to the ongoing and instrusive meddling of the government, at least one private third party, the workers' compensation insurance carrier, is also involved.

So we can talk about a "contract of employment" all we like.  But the relationship is far from a free contract between just you and me.  At least this resembles a contract insofar as there is an offer -- "I will work for you for X dollars per hour" -- and an acceptance, and an exchange of something that can be legally recognized as being of value between you and I, even if neither of us really gets to take away from the relationship everything that we bargained for.

The "contract of marriage" is something else entirely.  I might offer to marry you, and you might agree to my proposal.  That looks like an offer and an acceptance.  From there, what do we exchange that is of value?  It might be any of these:
  • Sex.  Except there are sexless marriages.  Maybe your marriage isn't like that, but it doesn't mean that your neighbor's marriage isn't.
  • Sexual monogamy.  Except there are open marriages, "arrangements," and some marriages allow for the occasional three-way.  And there are marriages with infidelity that is not treated as a breach of contract by the non-cheating partner.  Maybe your marriage isn't like that, but it doesn't mean that your neighbor's marriage isn't.
  • Procreation and child-rearing.  Except not all marriages result in children and not all marriages are intended to result in children.  Maybe your marriage has children, but that doesn't mean someone else's does.
  • Social Prestige.  Except couples don't give that to one another; third parties afford that to them.  And not everyone thinks particularly highly of everyone else's marriages.  Come on, you know somebody whose spouse you just can't stand, someone you'd be closer friends with if it didn't mean dealing with their obnoxious husband or wife, so we see that sometimes a marriage results in a diminishment rather than an increase of social prestige.
  • Mutual support.  Except some people just plain don't give a damn about their spouses.
  • Love and affection.  Hopefully your marriage has this, but again, there is no requirement that you have to be in love in order to be married.
  • Insurance and healthcare benefits.  Except some people don't have any to bring to the table.  And some employers don't offer spousal coverage.  The county clerk sure doesn't ask about this when she issues you the marriage license.
  • Mutual ownership of common property.  Except if you and your spouse agree, you can acquire property as your individual property and exclude it from your marital estate.  And proceeds of your family's estates and life insurance are generally your separate property that never enters the marital estate.  And the property you had before you were married, in theory, stays your individual separate property.
  • Lifelong companionship.  Except if you get divorced.  Or if you live somewhere other than your spouse (say, for your employment).  Or if you don't like your spouse.
  • The free choice of your spouse.  Not everyone has this; arranged marriages are still common in many parts of the world and practiced by some families even here in the twenty-first century USA.
  • Ability to file a joint tax return.  Sure, if you want, but you can also file separately if you wish and there's no requirement that you do a joint return.
  • Ability to jointly declare bankruptcy.  See above about tax returns; same thing applies mutatis mutandis.
  • Eligibility for joint and survivorship social security and welfare benefits.  Again, same thing -- if you want them and some people don't for whatever reason that might be.
  • Change of name.  Except you don't need to get married to change your name.  You can do it whenever you want.
In fact, pretty much anything else you might want to add to the list that might be seen as a valuable thing to exchange when getting married is something that is not necessarily part of the exchange and is almost certainly not part of the exchange for some couple that holds a marriage license issued by the state.  So, marriage fails the test of contract formation because by itself, marriage does not necessarily mean that there is an exchange of valuable consideration.

Then there's the fact that not just anyone can get married.  Certainly the issue of whether two adults of the same sex can get married, which is still a hot-button political issue.  But setting that aside, if you and I are too closely-related by blood, we are excluded from the ability to marry.  Or if one or both of us are not of a certain age.  Or mentally incompetent.  In the past, if we were of different racial groups that would be a bar, although that primitive notion is thankfully purged from our society.  The point is, we can't freely contract to marry.  It requires the by-your-leave of the government.

What, then, is marriage? From the law's point of view, it is an agreement between two people that they will have a "default" of jointly acquiring property after the marriage license is issued, adoption of a particular method for division of property if and when the spouses subsequently divorce or when one of them dies, joint eligibility for a spectrum of (waivable) governmental benefits, and an allocation of responsibility for childrearing should there happen to be children.  In each of these, there is governmental involvement at a meaningful level.

I guess the controversy comes from the fact that the word we use to describe this legal state of existence coincides with the same word used by most religions to describe a more particular set of mutual circumstances regardless of whatever obligations or options are put into play by the government.  That is why it is important to distinguish between civil marriage and religious marriage.  And because the government is involved, that is why I think it is imperative that everyone have access to this, unless there is a damn good reason they shouldn't.

But what I want to suggest today is that calling this a "contract" isn't really accurate.  That doesn't mean it isn't important or worthwhile or something not to be taken seriously.  But it's so fluid, so individualized, and the government is so deeply involved in the ways that it takes material effect in the real world, that it simply isn't an agreement between one spouse and another.

Employment and marriage are special relationships before the law.  To be sure, in a society like ours, these are exceedingly important realtionships and we ought to treat them with respect and do what is reasonable to maximize the ability of people to freely form and dissolve them.  The government, at many levels, is not just a witness to but an active and ongoing participant in both of these ongoing relationships. And so it is high time we stopped trying to graft the language of the Uniform Commercial Code to such special relationships.

Movie Review: Avatar

I know I'm late to the game here, but I don't like fighting crowds at movies, I was ill for about a week, and The Wife and I didn't find the time for a date night until just yesterday.  So it's been a while since this movie premiered and I only just now got around to seeing it.

Everything you've heard about this movie, good and bad, is true.  I enjoyed myself, and was absolutely amazed by the 3-D technology.

Story:  Yes, it's Dances With (Ten-Foot Tall) Smurfs, brought to you by James Cameron (literally) complete with lots of stuff blowing up and Sigourney Weaver in both regular and blue versions.  Sam Worthington's character is a paraplegic Marine whose spine was injured and signs up as a mercenary to interact with an alien race on a faraway planet on behalf of human colonists come to mine a valuable mineral.  Along the way he learns important lessons about life, love, living in harmony with nature, and the moral virtues of "going native."  Then a lot of stuff blows up and there is a happy ending.  Yes, you've seen this story before and yes, it isn't particularly deep and yes, if you have some kind of a chip on your shoulder about never, never admitting that America was ever morally in the wrong about anything even a little bit, the story will annoy you.  And the derivative nature of the script has drawn comparisons not only to Dances With Wolves but also Dune and a reasonably popular series of children's books and the comparisons are all apt.  But you know what?  A billion dollars in domestic box office receipts later (and partial ownership of the 3-D technology that will be used again and again in more movies this year and next) has substantially dulled James Cameron's ability to give a shit about your criticisms of his script.

Script: Unabashed Hollywood pablum, injected in pure form directly into your veins.  Is it a "liberal" script, as many conservative critics have charged?  You betcha.*  The mercenaries and the aliens are transparently obvious analogues for the U.S. Army and Native Americans in the 1800's, and indeed rather than introduce any slight ambiguity the script goes out of its way to polarize things further.  Nor did the scriptwriters work very hard to conceal things by way of names; the valuable mineral is not given a fanciful name but literally left bare as the engineering joke "unobtanium," the planet is literally named "Pandora," and if you have difficulty translating the name of the alien race, "Na'vi" into "Navajo," you aren't paying even the remotest bit of attention.  But here is the rare instance when hamfisted storytelling of a not-very-interesting story is not the most significant issue. The script is good enough for the movie's purposes.  There is just enough emotional depth to get it through and keep empathy for the heroes and antipathy for the villains throughout.  Are there plot holes?  Oh yeah, and all the characters are two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, too.  But you won't care.  This isn't a story-driven movie and you aren't going to see this movie for the story.

Cast: Serviceable.  One gets the impression that none of these actors particularly had to strain their abilities here because the characters are not all that deep.  Sam Worthington is appropriately good-looking and noble in demeanor in both his human and alien casts; Sigourney Weaver is an appropriate choice for the noble scientist struggling to work with grunts and savages; tough-guy character actor Stephen Lang is brusque and aggressive as the heavy; Giovanni Ribisi is shallow and callow as the mandatory evil yuppie; Michelle Rodriguez is luscious and admirable as the rogue warrior; Zoe Saldana is the ten-feet-tall blue-skinned warrior-chick love interest.

Cinematography: The art department got to let their imaginations go wild here.  The environment of the alien world is intended to be an idyllic, lush, heartbreakingly beautiful, and idealized pastiche of science-fiction portrayals of forested paradise.  Apparently finding George Lucas' use of Coast Redwood forests in Return of the Jedi unsatisfactory for impressiveness, Cameron's artists blend elements of Iguazu Falls, Amazonia, British Columbia, Congo, and pure fancy.  Mountains float on Pandora and no one bothers to explain why or how; the only reason there are floating mountains is because they look cool.

Costumes:  Standard paramilitary stuff, for the most part; Cameron has updated to the digital-camo now used by the U.S. military.  Non-military humans get to wear featureless gray jumpsuits and the evil yuppie gets to wear a collared shirt.  The aliens are generally portrayed as semi-nude to highlight their noble primitivism and the harmony with the environment inherent in their lifestyle.  About the only costume item of any real note is the mask humans must wear to breathe the air on the alien world, which is a recurring plot detail.  The aliens are pretty much entirely CGI creations; it's the same technology that brought Gollum to life in Lord of the Rings and which animates Cylon Centurions in the modern iteration of Battlestar Galactica, which is now good enough, based on motion capture technology, to replicate the fluidity of a real person moving and walking and doing stuff.

Effects: Staggering.  The 3-D technology is seamless, believable, and the real reason to go to this movie.  The technology uses grayscale polarized glasses rather than the old cruddy red-and-blue film lenses, which are both more comfortable and produce a much better and vibrant 3-D effect.  To my eye, it worked better during the pure CGI portions than the live-action portions of the movie.  The depth of the polarized lenses works well to establish three layers of depth to the picture -- far background really does look far away; whatever is in the focus of the shot appears comfortable in the "mid-range" and then there are things that appear in front of it and seem to be right in between you and the movie.  Ashes or leaves or other things falling are particularly effective and trigger your instinct to brush them away.  It works best to give depth to things in the focus of the shot and the background; occasionally there are objects that move prominently into the foreshot and seem to protrude into your personal space (arrows, guns, stuff like that) but happily, Cameron does not make a point of shooting arrows directly at the camera just to wow the viewer; using his experienced eye for action cinematography, he allows the progress of the set-pieces to dictate good shots and uses the 3-D to give you a good feel for the overall sequence.  This is why you should see Avatar and why you need to make it a point to do it in a good theater -- the movie delivers on its promise to make you feel like you are really immersed in the environment of this science-fiction universe.

Music: The orchestral score is generally subdued and drowned out by either dialogue or foley effects for much of the movie.  It is more powerful and prominent during the "money shot" CGI sequences, like when the hero learns how to do one of the many interesting things that the aliens can do with the native fauna or encounters a scene of particular beauty.  Predictably stattaco brass and tympani punctuate the battle sequences but are barely noticeable between the excessive amounts of ordinance being discharged.  The end title sequence contains the only music with vocals and it is in more of a pop-music style, and that seems jarring and out of place after the orchestral music preceding it, but by then I was walking out anyway.

Comments: This is one of those instances where I think I profited from reading all of the reviews and critiques of the movie before seeing it.  Doing that really downplayed my expectations for the story; I was expecting a grade-F script and got a grade-C, so in that sense it exceeded expectations.  The point was not to be entertained by a story but rather to take in a spectacle, and there, the movie delivered an A+ package.  After a while, I became conscious of the movie's two-and-a-half hour length but did not mind so much because I knew that plot elements A, B, C, and D all had to be resolved (in utterly predictable ways) and was prepared to enjoy the sights and sounds along the way while that happened.

* The script doesn't just infantilize the Na'vi, as my friend accurately accuses it of doing.  It infantilizes the humans, too.  It infantilizes the audience.  It is staggeringly beyond belief that humans would go to the trouble and expense of traveling to a world like this and so clumsily attempt to colonize it in the manner depicted, with such blithe disregard for the ultra-obvious and readily-reconciled moral issues addressed in the story.  The movie isn't intended to address the real, complex, and sometimes subtle issues of cultural clash and the interplay of economic and moral imperatives.  It is intended to make you go "wow!" when stuff blows up in 3-D and not a whole lot more than that.

January 15, 2010

Sacramento Quantified

So now that he suddenly seems to have a real shot at making it to the Senate, people are asking, "Is Scott Brown a liberal Republican or a conservative one?"  This political scientist at the University of Chicago has a common ideological index for all state legislatures and finds Brown to be almost a dead centrist.  (Sounds good to me.)

What's particularly interesting to me, though, is the degree of polarity he sees in California's legislature.  In one of his polimetric white papers, he finds California's legislature to be the most polarized, by far, of all the legislatures in the country, with the third-most liberal Democratic state delegation firmly in control of it.  The degree of polarization in Sacramento is probably at or near the root of the real governmental problems that ail our state so badly.

Catching Evidence Of A Spammer

I noticed some spam on an old post.  It was for a dating service by someone posting under the name "University."  As is my policy, I promptly deleted it.  But I happened to open up the Feedjit window and saw this entry:
Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh arrived from google.co.in on "Not A Potted Plant: Doggie Personal Ads" by searching for personal ads blogspot.com.
And there you have it.  The spammer is in India, and did a search for every blogger or blogspot post that used the words "personal ads."  Not particularly discriminating and he obviously didn't take the time to read what was in the post or even scrutinize the title.  And this guy has a spambot that can somehow penetrate the word verification feature.

I wonder how much spam I'd get if I didn't bother to have that filter on the comments.

Liberate Prometheus

What need have we of the Gods?
We have conquered their domains
As they conquered the Titans.

I look about my own land
And I see the elements
Harnessed, domesticated.

Wind and sun are made lightning,
A lightning shorn of thunder,
Jewels bring it where we bid.

The earth yields rock, which is now
Transformed into fire, and fire,
Our old servant, is made tame.

Glass and sand are transformed to
Birds of prey, with wings wider
Than the ancient Sphinx is long.

And our birds, breathing rock fire,
Fly faster than sound itself
And become invisible.

Swift Hermes could not outrace
The speed of a message sent
Around the globe -- by a child.

Loathsome diseases and plague,
Which once felled entire nations,
We cure with needle and pill.

If a river is needful,
There it shall be, and its
Water then made pure and sweet.

In my short days, I have seen
The air turned to brown poison,
And then made wholesome again.

The chariots of the Gods
Could not transport so many
So fast or so far as we.

This parade of miracles
Grows seeming endless; and yet,
We take it all for granted.

The shepherds of the Bronze Age
Could not have even dreamt of
Our wizardry done daily.

So we’ve no more use for tales
Of magic, gods, or demons.
Our own wonders do astound.

Knowledge of good and evil
Was called the forbidden fruit.
Yet who would not have eaten?

It’s better, I say, to know
Right from wrong, and make mistakes,
For only thus will we grow wise.

We are not masters of all,
And cannot claim power with
No limits. But truly, could Zeus?

That Titan who brought man fire
Was given eternal pain
For betraying that secret.

We should now repay the debt,
And use the gift that he gave
To set Prometheus free.

The gift he gave was knowledge,
And using it has shown us
That the Gods are obsolete.

For now is humanity’s,
Air, earth, fire, water, wind,
And even life and death, our tools.

Not yet do we grasp all for
Which we reach and desire,
But I see the day we will.

January 14, 2010

What Exactly Would A Republican Senator From Massachusetts Mean?

Amazingly, it appears that a Republican has something of a real shot at winning the interim election to replace the recently-deceased Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts.  No, really, go back and read that sentence again and think about it.  Let that really sink in.

The Republican scored a direct hit with this moment on a TV debate:

And he hasn't looked back from there. The Boston Globe has pronounced the election "up for grabs" and Brown, who is actually not a particularly conservative Republican* as compared with, say, Sam Brownback, has managed to unite several factions of the oft-beleagured Massachusetts GOP and to reach out to moderates and even some Democrats to gain some support.  So if he wins, he would be the first Republican Senator elected from Massachusetts since 1972.**  So what significance could we draw from such a singular event?
  1. The mood of the country is so far against President Obama and the health care reform proposal that even ultra-liberal Massachusetts is willing to elect a Republican to Ted Kennedy's seat to stop it.*
  2. Martha Coakely ran an utterly incompetent campaign, literally misspelling the word "Massachusetts" in one of her advertisements and this is simply her comeuppance for never having taken the election seriously.  Conversely, Brown appears to have been a smart, energetic, well-financed, and personable candidate; there hasn't been a factory in Massachusetts (especially the western part of the state) that he hasn't visited, a baby he hasn't kissed, or a club he hasn't spoken to, for the past two months.
  3. It's easier to run against the party in power no matter where you are, as long as you aren't running against an incumbent.
  4. Voters always pick the better-looking candidate and Scott Brown was voted America's Sexiest Man by Cosmopolitan magazine and hey, if anyone would know who that was, it would be Cosmo.  It probably doesn't hurt that his daughter was a competitor on American Idol although I question whether in any seriousness that matters very much.
  5. There is a wave of populism running across the country and Scott Brown is surfing on it; the wave will crest and eventually collapse as things return to normal (perhaps by way of the GOP subsuming the support of this movement).
  6. Martha Coakley is simply not as good a candidate as everyone thought she would be and the effective one-party system prevailing in Massachusetts has a cursus honorum that does not filter for charisma and political strength but rather filters for the ability to please party insiders with ideological conformity.
As an explanation, I think we're going to have to say that there is some mixture of all of those reasons into the cocktail.  Personally, I heavily favor explanations #4 and #6 in that mix at the expense of the others.  Martha Coakley pleased a lot of people (myself included) with a public splash on same-sex marriage.  But the thing about a one-party system is that there is no competition for various seats; it is easy for insiders to angle their chosen favorites in to intermediate-level offices through manipulation of the primary system and raw application of party money because lower-level races don't matter that much.  When you go for something the people know counts, like U.S. Senator, that becomes harder to do and it's starting to appear that Coakley doesn't have what it takes to compete at that level (which includes being tall and good-looking) while Brown does.

*  Brown has taken the position that he is not opposed to health care reform as a basic idea, or even the idea of an expanded role of the government in a new health care system, it's just this particular bill that he would vote against because it costs too much.  A defensible position, if you asked me, which you kind of did by coming here to my blog.

** That would be Edward Brooke III, winning his first bid for re-election, in 1978, he lost to Paul Tsongas. Senator Brooke was only the third African-American ever to sit in the U.S. Senate and the first to get there by winning a popular vote; before him were Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, both of whom won appointment to the Senate by vote of the Mississippi Legislature shortly after Reconstruction.

More New Tiger Woods Commercials

By now, you've all seen the Billy Dee Williams thing.  But this one, I think, is new:

January 13, 2010

Edwards Air Force Base

It's kind of a shame that when my in-laws come out next month, I won't have the ability to take them out to the base.  Driving out there today for work reminded me that the landscape is pretty extraordinary.  Some days I can see the beauty in the area and some days I can't; today was a good day (in part because it had just rained).  Super-old Joshua trees, expansive lake beds, Martian-looking rock escarpments, weird-shaped buildings where science and aviation type stuff happens, and lots of cool-looking old airplanes on sticks.  My father-in-law would enjoy that but we'll have to make do with civilian-access equivalents elsewhere.

NyQuil Dreams

One minor benefit to suffering from rhinovirus or whatever the hell it is that has me coughing and sniffling all the time is NyQuil.  Sickly-sweet, the very taste of illness, it contains a powerful ingredient that knocks me out and gets me to sleep quickly after I take it.  And I have the strangest dreams.  Like my cat morphing into a horse with a long ostrich neck but keeping her face.  Or a rain of cherries.  Actually, I think it would hurt to be in a rain of cherries if they've fallen from any height at all, but in my dream it was somewhat pleasant.  I don't like waking up at 2:30 totally dehydrated but you know what?  If I need the stuff I'll take it and deal with the drying-out because that beats the hell out of the alternative.  I am, however, really really ready for this to be past me.

This Is Where It All Happened

A cool map showing where every nuclear explosion has taken place on the planet.  There is one additional test site, at sea in the southwestern Indian Ocean, which is likely to have been a joint South African and Israeli test.  Neither country will either confirm or deny the event.

Like You Needed More Proof

Yes, Pat Robertson is nuts.  The sky is also blue at noon on a clear day, water is wet, and heavy stones placed on slippery slopes will tend to move down rather than up.  If you need any other pressing questions of that caliber cleared up, try Wikipedia.

What Haiti needs is not a lecture about Satan or any amount of prayers or our collective astonishment that anyone still assigns the remotest bit of credibility to this weirdo.  Right now, Haiti needs doctors and food and medicineHere's where you can help make that happen. I gave, so can you.

What Haiti needs in the long run is a return to the rule of law, the restoration of some kind of educational system available to all its children, and an uncorrupted government with leaders who have been trained in American, Canadian, British, or French universities in things like urban planning, agriculture, and political science.  That won't happen overnight.

Sneezing, Coughing, Choking and Functional

Do you ever get that drop of liquid (no matter what kind) falling into your windpipe?  I had that happen to me in front of my class last night.  Sent me into a coughing, choking fit that lasted five minutes and nearly cost me my voice again.  Humiliating.  The good news is, my new class format seems to be well-received by my students and I am able to work in quite a bit of good information to my lecture despite "teaching to the test."  The bad news is, one of my students is "talky" and doesn't understand issues of relevance.  A business law class is not really the place to be discussing Thoreau or Baudelaire.

Do you ever have to sneeze or cough so hard that it causes your muscles in your neck and upper arms to seize up in intense pain?  That happened to me this morning when I was driving in to work.  The coughing hasn't gone away yet but I can't afford to take more time away from the office and from court than I have.  It's not even a matter of being a hero -- it's just plain a matter of keeping up with the press of business.  I'm trying to avoid people here as best I can.  Dancing lessons tonight are not really a good option.

The Daily Show Is Not News

Jon Stewart, by all accounts, got outmaneuvered and outclassed by John Yoo (the author of the torture memos) the other night.  Well, I guess that isn't much of a surprise.  Stewart is not a lawyer, not a journalist, not an interrogator.  And in fact, in order to attract guests, he does need to provide them with enough room to express themselves, and that means that some of them, like Yoo, will succeed in framing things in a favorable way.  Mainly, though, the Daily Show is a comedy vehicle, not an investigative news vehicle, and the interview cannot get too heavy.  It falls to serious news shows to do serious interviews with the architects of American torture (including the one now teaching law at UC Berkeley) and it falls to Jon Stewart to point out for comedic value the times when those serious news sources have failed to do their jobs.  It is not Jon Stewart's job to do the serious job of investigative journalism himself.  And in a way, I'm glad that Stewart didn't play "gotcha" for yuks with something so serious as this in the first place.  Let him have fun with the non-issue of Harry Reid's unwise remarks, the Daily Show is good at that sort of thing.  But we shouldn't play torture for laughs.

January 11, 2010

Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Day One

Having spent most of the day ill and abed, I've not done a ton of reading or writing.  And the Supreme Court would not allow YouTube to simulcast or delay-cast the trial despite the trial judge's order that it should.  (Query as to why all trials and indeed all court proceedings are not available in this way.  Courts are supposed to be public.)  Therefore I commend to you the excellent summary of this most critical of trials available here -- although the source is pro-SSM (as am I), there appears to be some effort to fairly present the arguments offered in favor of defending Proposition 8.  Nevertheless, those arguments appear to me to be intellectually very weak, the only reason I can think of to approve of them is simply that they were the will of the majority and there are limits to the effect that the majority's will can take effect under our Constitutional system.  At the end of the day, it appears that the case will come down to Romer v. Evans sort of argument -- was the ballot initiative animated by anti-homosexual bias, and if so, does that violate the Equal Protections Clause?  That's a lot of eggs in one basket.