September 29, 2010

Good Message, Good News

Dexter McCluster, an early prospect for NFL rookie of the year, is to be praised for offering his time and his new-found fame to get the word out in this PSA:
I heartily agree with the message, even if laws trying to enforce the issue seem to be counterproductive. Don't text and drive. Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel. Nothing texted to you can possibly be so important that it's worth the loss of a human life, possibly your own.

It's also good news for the Kansas City Chiefs. Kanye West and Nelly don't have too much competition to worry about here, so McCluster is unlikely to be lured away from the Chiefs by a lucrative record deal any time soon.

Probate to Pangloss

My firm's probate practice requires us to frequently deal with people who are facing death. Sometimes it’s their own, sometimes it’s a loved one’s; sometimes the death is in the future and sometimes it is in the immediate past. One of the ways that I’ve seen survivors of the recently-deceased deal with their grief is to note that the decedent’s “quality of life” was low prior to death, and to take solace in the fact that they are now released from an uncomfortable existence.

Does that have any meaning other than “they were in a lot of pain”? Surely, “quality of life” means more than freedom from pain; a bedridden patient on morphine feels no pain but that is obviously not a desirable existence. At best, it is less bad than one in which one is both bedridden and stricken with pain. From this, we can see that being bedridden is something incompatible with a high-quality life, whether or not pain is a factor.

Put another way, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for that state of existence called “happiness”? This topic came up recently on an e-mail discussion group and a pretty extensive list resulted. I augment, condense, and re-prioritize the list somewhat here to try and put all of the qualitatively similar items together. If you had all of these things, would you consider yourself happy?
  • Loving relationships with others, including the formation of a family unit of one’s own choosing.
  • The personal liberty to act, speak, and believe as one chooses (provided one does not unreasonably harm others in one’s actions) and sufficient political empowerment so as to meaningfully participate in society, without fear of governmental retribution.
  • A functioning, pain-free body, with affordable and readily-available health care in the event that one’s health diminishes, and a painless, dignified end to life.
  • Meaningful ability to improve oneself by way of pursuing educational, intellectual, personal, and professional goals.
  • A healthy environment, including clean air and water, access to unspoiled and beautiful natural areas, and availability of a variety of nutritious and pleasurable foods.
  • Safety and security from violence to one’s person and retention of one’s possessions, and confidence in the same for oneself and others.
  • Means sufficient to not impose anxiety about the financial impact of every decision in life, obtained through some form of socially useful, non-abusive employment.
  • Access to travel, entertainment, and similar sorts of personal pleasures in reasonable quantity and quality -- perhaps including the giving of good things to others such as one’s family and friends or to charity.
  • Revenge against one’s enemies. (That one is a joke, and not an original one, either.)

I have difficulty imagining an existence in which I possessed everything on this list which would be unacceptable to me for some reason. The next step, then, is to take a measure of what’s on that list.

The first thing that strikes me about the list is how much of it is founded upon social interaction. The bulk of these criteria for a high-quality life appear to be predicated upon the ability to communicate and meaningfully interact with other people. Happiness seems inherently tied up with one’s relationship with other human beings. Perhaps I’m just that much of an extrovert, but a solitary life does not seem to be one in which happiness is possible. At most, solitude can be tolerated – but it normally cannot lead to real happiness.

It’s not necessarily easy to quantify these things – do you live in a society that rates “4” or a “9” on the “ten-point liberty-meter”? – and some of these criteria are abstract and ill-defined through my lawyer-like reliance on the concept of “reasonability.” What you think of as a reasonable amount of access to entertainment might seem parsimonious to me. A sufficient amount of money to get all this is obviously (and in my formulation, explicitly) a necessary condition, but there is clearly a point beyond which additional money becomes superfluous. By using a weasel-word like “reasonable,” I know I'm being inexact and imprecise, but please forgive me for that, because this sort of exercise is inevitably and inherently inexact and imprecise.

And, this looks like a generally inter-dependent set of criteria. A “boost up” in one area will probably assist in another; a “drag down” in one area will probably impact another. One can acquire financial means from a good job which results from a good education and a substantial network of social and family contacts, which in turn opens up travel and entertainment possibilities not previously available as well as greater access to health care, personal security, and political empowerment. Without personal security, though, the risk of property loss can be high enough that one’s financial means, even if otherwise good, are imperiled. It doesn’t matter how much money you make if someone else is just going to steal it.

Finally, it strikes me that a lot of this list is framed, or at least frame-able, in negative terms – we’re talking about the absence of hunger, the absence of crime, the absence of sickness, the absence of solitude, the absence of repression. Only in personal improvement and in the pleasure of giving to others are truly affirmative activities to be found; the rest of it might legitimately be seen as keeping the wolves at bay. But without finding some kind of self-identified and affirmative purpose to one’s life, it doesn’t seem possible to me to be truly happy.

Now, I’ve tried to frame these criteria in a timeless sort of manner, so that they might be a useful index to measure things in historical time. It’s clear that, at least in the industrialized western world, we have longer, faster, more productive, and more pleasure-filled lives now than at any point in the historical past – but are we happier today than our ancestors were? I have to say that looking at the list, yes, we do. We have more and better food than ever before; more and better health care than ever before; more and better education than ever before; we are wealthier as a society than ever before (at least, when averaging out for the ups and downs of economic cycles, which is not always easy to do while we’re still in a “down” phase of that cycle). And there are simply more of us around than ever before, which means we have more opportunities for social interactions than before (including more opportunities to make enemies upon whom we might revenge ourselves).

While it’s not been without significant costs, if my list is correct, then our modern, technologically-advanced society indeed does make us happier than the generations who have preceded us – and we can reasonably anticipate that our descendants will be even happier still.

September 27, 2010

Seventeen Penalties

Turns out, when you spot the home team 152 yards on seventeen different penalties, it's quite difficult to win a professional football game. Hopefully Green Bay can remember this interesting statistical factoid next week. Chicago, not Green Bay, joins the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Cinderellas in the ranks of the as-yet undefeated. Green Bay, however, defeated itself.

Seriously Are Barrels Ever This Long?

I understand the need for a graphic to represent the hot-button issue. But I can't recall ever seeing a barrel of a handgun long enough to do this:

September 25, 2010

An Analogy

Rolling Stones : INXS :: Beatles : ???

I said "U2." Is there a better answer?
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September 23, 2010

Rally To Restore Sanity

Allow me to heartily, politely, and respectfully endorse this upcoming rally in Washington D.C.  If I happen to be there for some reason on October 30, 2010, I'll be the one carrying this sign:

Of course, if I've no other particular business in D.C. on October 30, I probably won't go and will just look for coverage on television or the intertubes after the fact. Which is sort of the point.

Artwork handrawn by yours truly.

New And Improved Ought To Mean Something More Than A New Label On An Old Product

The GOP "Pledge to America" released this morning at first glance looks like it has two main parts -- repeal Obamacare, and NOT to do a bunch of other stuff, most of which amounts to promising not to raise a variety of taxes. I'll look at it more after work, but this is far less impressive than 1994's "Contract with America." It's long, complex without being substantive, unlikely to be actually implemented even if it is meaningfully attempted, and looks like more of the same brand of stuff republicans have been selling for a long time. While there is not much in there that is objectionable, there is also not much that is inspiring or even interesting.
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September 22, 2010

This Is A Pleasant Fiction, Isn't it?

A "myth," as I have tried to consistently use the term, is a story with powerful emotional or social resonance, and for which the objective truth of its content is irrelevant and generally questionable.  President Obama recited a myth the other day addressing the Congressional Hispanic Caucus: "Long before America was even an idea, this land of plenty was home to many peoples. The British and French, the Dutch and Spanish, to Mexicans, to countless Indian tribes. We all shared the same land," the President said.

Well, no, Mr. President, that's not true so much as objectively wrong in every facet of the remark. "America" is an idea that has been around since 1507, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller released a painted wall map called Universalis Cosmographia naming the New World "America" after Amerigo Vespucci of Florence. The "countless Indian tribes" included many who are not within the group of indigenous North Americans referred to by the wildly incorrect name "Indians" (their pre-Columbian ancestors were predominantly from east Asia, areas today identified as Siberia and Mongolia) and while some were peaceful, others were warlike and perhaps no better counter-example to the pastoral scene of mutual harmony can be thought of than the Aztecs, who created a sophisticated empire on the backs of bloody, brutal conquest, massive enslavement of their neighbors, and (like many of the nearby cultures they conquered) a state-sponsored religious cult prominently incorporating human sacrifice as a ritual. When European settlers came, they hardly shared the land in peace, either with the indigenous peoples they found here, or with each other. While the concept of "Mexico" as a geographic region came early, politically the U.S.A. declared and won its independence from its European mother country a generation before Mexico did.

The reality of pre-independence New World history includes substantial amounts of violence, intolerance, xenophobia, inadvertent but fatal exchange of pathogens, and fighting about exclusive dominion over land, and rather sparse and insubstantial examples of peaceful sharing of common resources. The idea of a multicultural, pastoral, and pacific existence bears no more resemblance to historical reality than dragons do to actual animal taxonomy. It is a pretty story, a pleasant myth, and perhaps something intended to promote the worthy idea that civilized peoples today should tolerate and get along with one another while using natural resources in a wise and sustainable fashion. But in spreading this myth, even if he were doing it with such worthy goals, the President got his history, well, exactly and completely wrong.

Allow me to submit for your consideration the objection that in a world where substantial numbers of Americans don't realize that Benjamin Franklin was never President and think that the Constitution establishes a "Christian nation," reliance on historical myth as opposed to historical reality is a net disservice to the American people.

September 21, 2010

Politics Disgusts Me Sometimes

Really? Filibustering the defense appropriations act so that we can "study" (read: delay) repealing "Don't Ask Don't Tell" instead of just repealing it now and accepting the inevitable?

I've not known anyone in the military who didn't know full well who in their unit was gay and not a one of them particularly cared. It's my distinct impression that if the brass tells the rank and file, "Do not discriminate against gays. That is an order." then the bulk of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines will follow that order. The military integrated racially long ago and maybe there are still problems here and there but those are handled on a case by case basis.

Let Americans serve, who are able and willing to serve. It matters not if they are male or female; it matters not if they are black, white, brown, or so on; it matters not if they are Christian or Jewish or Atheist; and it matters not if they are gay or straight. All that matters is that they wish to serve the United States of America. Let them serve with honor and let the rest of us honor their service.

Yes, I think it really is as simple as that.
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September 20, 2010

Angels And Kiwis: A Little Help Please

I've never seen an angel. I have seen pictures of angels in art, but not an actual entity that matches or even approximates the description of angels in art and myth. I know people who claim to have seen and interacted with angels and according to some polls, a reasonably large number of people express belief that angels actually exist. I do not believe that they are telling me the truth. Most charitably, I believe they have deluded themselves into thinking a prosaic experience involved angels. But even if I were to grant that these people were honestly self-deluded, I would still disbelieve the truth of the matter asserted, which is the existence of angels. A tale of a phenomenon attributed to angelic activity would inspire me to mentally search for any possible alternative explanation that was even remotely more plausible than the one proffered.

Indeed, even if it turns out to be the case angels have an objective reality that I have simply missed out on, and you have had a direct, personal experience with an angel that was not a hallucination, chances are pretty good that you won't condemn me very much for not believing in angels and that you would agree that without more evidence than someone else's say-so, I am within the realm of reasonable behavior to disbelieve in angels.

For some people, angels are every bit as real as New Zealand. I've never been to or seen New Zealand; I have no direct, personal knowledge of New Zealand. I know people who claim to have seen and been in New Zealand and even met people who claim to have been born and lived there for a time. But I have no way of knowing if they are telling me the truth about their experiences. It is not difficult to seek out news from New Zealand on the internet, but it's not hard to find things that aren't true on the internet, either. I have seen pictures of what purports to be New Zealand in movies, photographs, and on maps. But I have no way of knowing if those images were not of some other place and simply part of a massive conspiracy on the part of others to convince me that there is such a place as New Zealand.  Nevertheless, I have not the slightest doubt that other people are telling me the truth and that New Zealand really, objectively exists.

So -- angels are fiction, New Zealand is reality. I have no personal, direct experience with either. This seems to be a very reasonable way of dealing with the world. What is qualitatively different about my experience of angels as opposed to my experience of New Zealand?

If my use of "angels" as an example offends you because you believe in angels, substitute "fire-breathing dragons" in their place. The point is, it is eminently reasonable to disbelieve in angels and eminently reasonable to believe in New Zealand. Why is that the case instead of the converse or some other combination of those two states of belief?

I have an instinctual grasp of the qualitative difference between a belief in angels and a belief in New Zealand. But I find I have trouble articulating that difference. It's not simply that I trust the New Zealand advocates and mistrust the angelic advocates. It can't be my personal experience; I have no more experience, memory, or other direct sense data about New Zealand than I do about angels. Some of it has to do with references to New Zealand that I can find in source material that I deem to be authoritative, but again, this is obviously insufficient to justify reliance on or prefer one kind of reference (an atlas) as opposed to another (the Bible).

It has to do more with an understanding of the diversity and wealth of different source material supporting the proposition that New Zealand exists as opposed to the source material supporting the proposition that angels exist. I read an atlas, and it tells me that both Florida and New Zealand exist. I have had direct, personal experience with Florida; I've been there, lived there, and have memories of direct sense data accumulated with respect to Florida. This correlates strongly with similar claims made by other people about Florida; their stories seem very similar to my own memories and sensations. Because some of these people and some of these references are congruent with experiences I have had, I give them a presumption of veracity which I do not with those whose experiences are deeply incongruent with reality as I know it to be, like claims about angels.

This strikes me as at best a partial explanation. People I otherwise trust and even rely upon believe in angels and make reference to their existence. Women report to me that childbirth is uncomfortable, often to the point of being painful. I believe these women, but not only do I lack experience with which to verify or correlate their claims, as a male, I can never acquire such experience. I could, in theory, travel to New Zealand and experience it for myself, assuming that it exists. Even if I undergo gender reassignment surgery, the accident of my being born biologically male means that I will never have the experience necessary to directly verify a claim that giving birth is painful. But again, there is something about the quality of the claim that would make it unreasonable for me to disbelieve in the pain of childbirth which is different from a claim that there are fire-breathing dragons alive somewhere on Earth right now.

What I have difficulty articulating right now are philosophically robust qualitative differentiations between claims which are reasonable and those which are unreasonable. Something is not reasonable simply because I say it is, it is not reasonable simply because my instincts tell me it is so. There must be some principled way to differentiate between a reasonable and unreasonable claim; I find that I lack the training or language to accurately describe what I'm getting at.

Exurbs Are No Place For Astronomy

Jupiter is making its closest approach to Earth since before I was born and will not be this close again for twelve more years. So I go outside to take a look and there is so much light pollution I can't see a single star. Most discouraging.

In The Courthouse Elevator

This guy gets in the elevator with me. We ride in silence for a moment while he looks at the files in my arm.

"Man, I'm glad I don't got no court today," he says.

I say, "Huh. That's funny, because I'm glad I do." He laughed.

A fine moment of humanity. Later I wondered why he was there if he didn't have business with the courts but there's all sorts of reasons why that might be.
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Tragedy Averted

People ask sometimes -- either explicitly or by implication -- why it is that I direct so much snark at Christianity. And in fact, most Christians I know are good people, smart people, reasonable people who do not let the fact that they hold a set of actually quite bizarre beliefs interfere with remarkably normal lives and normal decision-making.

It is when people take their religious beliefs too seriously, too literally, too fanatically, that they become dangerous. Some Muslims, when they take their religious beliefs too seriously, strap bombs to themselves and try to kill as many infidels as they can so that they can ascend to paradise. This is a criminal act and one which admits of not even the remotest bit of moral justification. This behavior of people who don't know where to draw the line between the fantasy role-playing game they call religion and the world of reality in which we all live makes the rest of us -- including a lot of other Muslims -- scared and nervous.

But when people actually and genuinely act on Christian beliefs, most of the rest of us get quite scared and nervous too. We had a national headline generating example of that right here next to my home town yesterday.

It seems that this group of a dozen or so people were dissatisfied with their Christian church and left to form their own religious community. Yesterday, they left behind cash, deeds to their property, cell phones, and bunch of other material possessions, and left letters saying goodbye to their loved ones and family members, telling them to be glad because they would all be in heaven soon.

Reading this, there seems little room doubt what they were going to do -- kill themselves, Jonestown-style, for some absurd religious reason. And probably try to take the children with them. Their spouses, families, and friends were quite panicked. So the police, appropriately, put some urgency on looking for them before exactly that could happen.

Now, as it turns out, they were found in a local park in a remote part of town. They were praying against immorality in general and, according to them, premarital sex in particular. The leader of this group (some have called them a "cult" but let's not split hairs over what that word means exactly) denied that she had any children despite the fact that two of her children were right with her.

Well, now, what exactly were these folks doing if not following the teachings of their religion?  Didn't Jesus command his followers to forsake their material possessions to be true Christians?  These folks walked away from their money, their houses, and a variety of other material possessions -- to go pray in a public area so as to prevent other people from having consensual sex.  Didn't Paul the Evangelist rail against the corrupting influence of sexual activity, and indeed haven't those writings been interpreted as demanding celibacy by not just these but a wide variety of Christian sects?  Didn't Jesus command his followers to leave behind their families so as to become true Christians -- and that's what it sounds like these folks did, denying their family relationship with even their own children when questioned by the authorities.

They were waiting for an imminent apocalypse, which is prophesied in the Bible. They expected that when that event happened -- and that it would, very soon in the future -- they would be taken up to heaven, and their belief in that set of future events appears to have been deeply sincere to the point that they acted, precipitously as it turns out, on those beliefs.

You might say, well, they picked and chose some teachings to follow and some other teachings to ignore, and the ones they picked and chose were the wrong ones. I don't know about that. Seems to me like if you're going to take Christianity seriously, you've got to take all its teachings seriously. That means that you've got to believe that the apocalypse is going to happen any day now.You've got to believe that your family, friends, possessions, and other attributes of your present life are only going to get in the way of your salvation and you're better off walking away from them all right now. That means that your life on this earth is meaningless and all that matters is preparing yourself and as many other people as you can for the next life.

It means, in other words, doing what these folks were doing: acting literally on instructions found in a collection of writings more than 1900 years old. It's hardly a wonder that, when it comes to matters of life and death, responsible adult people set aside their "respect" for the religious beliefs of others and activated the Search And Rescue squadrons. Law enforcement, appropriately, considered the validity of these religious teachings only to the extent necessary to educate their searches for where innocent people might be very much in harm's way. With the lives of children in the balance, no one said, "Well, that's what they believe and we just have to respect that," because it would have been patently unreasonable to do other than what they did.

This is because, when religion is taken seriously, it is a very dangerous thing and deep down, we all know this to be true. Here, religious fanaticism motivated a dozen people to do things that absolutely convinced their families and friends and law enforcement that a mass suicide was going down -- and although this story has ended well (as least for now) I tend to think that this was a very prudent suspicion indeed. Even though the leaders of this group deny that they had any sort of harmful intent towards themselves or anyone, they clearly have a warped understanding of what "truth" is (denying their own children), what objective actions are or are not tolerable, and thus ultimately, what "good" is.

It's all to easy to believe that these folks were indeed on a short path to self-destruction. They really believe in heaven and they really want to go there. That's scary stuff. That's the harm I see coming from literal or next-to-fanatical adoption of religious teachings.

Nice people who instinctively stop acting on their religious beliefs when doing so becomes socially unacceptable are not the targets of my epistolary venom. It's the crazed fanatics that scare me, and the whole world now knows that there are some crazed fanatics right here in California's high desert.

September 19, 2010

She Turned Me Into A Newt

So newly-nominated U.S. Senate candidate apparently once "dabbled into witchcraft" back in her early twenties. That sounds like a gigantic yawner of a non-story to me.  There being no religious test for the holding of Federal office and all forms of religion being equally invalid nonsense to me, I fail to see why I should care that someone experimented with a religion not of her upbringing while she was a young adult.

Except it isn't a yawner of a non-story to a lot of people. This seems to have a reasonably large number of people upset.

I mean, come on, it's not like she experimented with Islam or anything like that.  Far, far better that she actually worshiped a divine personification of evil (one prominent conservative blogger calls this "excusable") than it would have been had she learned about a religion with over a billion adherents worldwide. And she's certainly come back to the cult of zombie-worship in a big way since then.

It's not at all clear to me that she actually did literally worship Satan anyway. From the small excerpts of the statements she made on Politically Incorrect that I can identify using the (admittedly minimal) effort I've put in to investigate story, it looks like she engaged in a single act of some kind of non-Christian worship while on a date with a man identified as a "witch." That means that, while in her early twenties, she dated a guy who was a Wiccan.

There are appreciable numbers of Wiccans out there and here's a news flash: they don't worship Satan. They worship -- well, there's no formal structure for Wicca so I don't think anyone can make a broad, categorical statement about who or what Wiccans worship as a group. Some Wiccans worship an entity they call "The Goddess" and others worship an amorphously-defined pantheon of spirits of nature, aiming at ultimately worshiping nature itself. In practice, Wicca involves honoring where your food comes from and the spirit of an animal that you consume, treating others the way you would want to be treated, and seeking an inner peace and harmony with the world around you. There are a lot of complex reasons, some rooted in over a thousand years' worth of history, why Wicca is called "witchcraft" and "Satan-worship," but taking its teachings at face value,* it is no more morally objectionable than pretty much any other religion you could care to name.

Wicca does not come with any of the hangups about sex associated with more traditional religions and for at least people, engaging in a Wiccan ritual is a countercultural and somewhat rebellious act. Some varieties of it use "ritualized" sex as part of an act of worship, so it could be that O'Donnell's date was actually simply trying to seduce her (and who knows, maybe he succeeded or didn't really have to try all that hard, that's between him and her and none of our business, although if so that would make the prudish O'Donnell something of a hypocrite) and all the Wiccan worship stuff was so much window dressing for this otherwise rather ordinary sort of human activity -- people in the twenties go out on dates and sometimes the dates go well and they have sex. It's, um, a lot of fun. O'Donnell was as entitled to have that sort of fun as anyone else.

Now, there's all sorts of reasons to be skeptical about Christine O'Donnell as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. She seems to take a rather casual view towards campaign finance laws and has allegedly used campaign donations to pay personal expenses like her rent. She has publicly voiced a deep identification with the women of the Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia series (again with the magic and witchcraft!) which is fine as a light-hearted matter but she seems to take the analogy rather more seriously than that.  Her early career involved advocating such an uptight vision of human sexuality that she has had to deny rumors that if elected, she would attempt to criminalize masturbation (I would foresee practical enforcement problems).†

Is the nomination of such a whack-job (no masturbation pun intended) a sign of deep insanity within the Tea Party movement?  I don't really think so.  There is certainly a legitimate debate to be had about whether the Tea Party is now or is inevitably going to be a movement embracing social causes.

I've had the impression from the start that the motive force behind it is a simple fear of government in the hands of Barack Obama, but over time I've been forced to admit that there's more depth to it than dislike of Obama and from the beginning some criticism (although not a whole lot of venom) has been directed at former President Bush for his free-spending ways, too. There seems to be a desire for fiscal responsibility but at the same time a desire for lower taxes (the legend is that the "tea" in "tea party" stands for "Taxed Enough Already"), and those are probably incompatible goals for the foreseeable future.

though, and I wonder if what's really going on is that individual local areas of "tea party" activism are allowing the social and religious issues to creep in while others, like the one characterized by the woman interviewed on NPR who said that as far as she was concerned, the tea party movement was about "Constitutionally Limited Government, Fiscal Responsibility and Free Markets." If I were convinced that was the extent of what was going on with the tea party movement, I could more or less get behind it.

But when we find out that a Tea Party-approved insurgent candidate once, as a very young woman, experimented with a non-Christian religion, and all the energy and air goes out of her campaign with a gigantic WHOOSH!, yeah, that makes me think that religion is one of the motive forces powering the phenomenon. Then I see things like this article, and while I don't pretend that it (or almost anything else I can find) is unbiased, it makes me think that even though on its face this is a movement with objectives I can endorse, people like Christine O'Donnell are not people like me and I've little reason to believe that, were she somehow elected to the Senate despite having had a racy date with a Wiccan nearly twenty years ago, I would be pleased with the way she helped govern our country.

As a final observation, I'll note that the Tea Party's big primary successes this cycle all seem to have come in relatively small states, or in states whose nomination processes have rules that lend themselves well to "inside baseball." The most-touted Tea Party successes in Federal elections have come in Delaware, Nevada, Alaska, and Utah. O'Donnell won her nomination by about 3,500 votes out of under 60,000 cast. She won, and that's significant, but it seems that in larger jurisdictions, the "establishment" Republicans have large enough numbers and enough pull that candidates of all sorts are forced to steer towards the mainstream and abandon their personal ideals for the sake of becoming electable at all.‡

So while I don't think the reports of Christine O'Donnell's flirtation with Wicca in her twenties is particularly revelatory or damning about her, it does reveal something about the state of the Republican party and its relationship with the Tea Party movement. It suggests to me that the party as a whole is probably still unmoved by the Tea Party but in smaller groups, and smaller states, a group of people who haven't really thought things through and have difficulty separating libertarian from socially conservative ideals are calling the shots. In other words, there is little to no adult supervision.

* To demonstrate how ridiculous a religion is, you rarely need to go deeper than face value.
† But seriously, Christine. Diddle the bean already. Do us all a favor.
‡ I'm looking at you, Rand Paul.

September 18, 2010

A Text About 2 Years Of President Obama

In response to a query from a Reader in Portugal, written so that hopefully an automatic translator wouldn't lose too much meaning:

I can tell that your English is much better than my Portuguese. I had to use a computer translator to understand your blog. (I confess I do not understand the ongoing story about the penguins at all. Is it a parody of your government?) Hopefully you can make use of my thoughts.

I get the idea that you are as cynical about your government as I am about mine. Still, I hope what I have to say is useful to you. There was once a tradition in the US that we can criticize our President and our government only among ourselves, and that we should leave our political differences at the nation's borders. In this day and age, that is nonsense - the entire world can read about Americans arguing over politics on the internet and hear us doing it on television, so it is useless to hide the fact that we have strong differences of opinion over here.

In my opinion, President Obama has been a tremendous disappointment. I knew before he was elected that he would change our health care system so that we would pay more taxes for it but not get any real different service from our doctors and hospitals. That has come true. I knew before he was elected that he would continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while falsely claiming to be bringing them to an end. That has come true also.

But, he promised us that he would work to bring down our national debt. Instead, it has increased by 50% since he took office. He promised us that he would protect our civil liberties and would respect the limits on government power enshrined in our Constitution. Instead, he has continued to spy on American e-mail without getting search warrants, continued to hold prisoners in Guantanamo Bay without giving them access to attorneys, used government money to subsidize private religious activities, and treated gay people like second-class citizens. He has not even managed to appoint enough judges to adequately fill vacancies on our courts, despite having a very friendly Congress which ought to have given him the ability to appoint nearly anyone he wanted.

I do not think any President could have stopped our economy from crashing the way it did. But a responsible President would have found a way to mitigate that damage without giving billions of dollars to the very corporations that were responsible for setting up that fall. To be sure, President Bush did similar kinds of things, and if we had elected John McCain instead of Barack Obama to be President, I doubt things would be very different from what they are.

Obama has delivered on all his campaign promises that I did not like and he has broken all his campaign promises that I did like. Americans may have better emotions about their government with him as the President; people in other nations may have better emotions about the US with him in office. But I think Obama lacks the skills to really be a good President because he never did the sorts of things earlier in his career that would have trained him to become a real leader. If the USA were led by a Prime Minister instead of a President, maybe he'd have been good at that job. But that is not our form of government.

The most frustrating thing, however, is that I see no evidence to support the idea that the other major political party in the U.S. will select a candidate for President in 2012 who will be any better than Obama. I dislike feeling so hopeless, but I can take solace from the fact that the US is still a major industrial power, a wealthy nation, and one that is governed by laws and a strong Constitution -- so President Obama can only do so much damage while he's in charge, and eventually will have to step aside for someone else, who will probably wind up doing a different kind of damage in his or her own way.

I do not know very much about politics in Portugal or its economy. I know that your Prime Minister has reached out to other political parties and has promised reform and efficiency in government and that must have cost him a lot of political support. I know there was a scandal concerning whether he had earned his degree at university, which seems like it is not as important as whether he is leading the government in a good direction or a bad one, and there seems to be a lot of questions about whether he is taking money from companies in exchange for government contracts. In that sense he seems to me to be like former US President Clinton or Italy's Prime Minister Berlusconi -- he may be corrupt and dishonest personally, but it also seems like he's actually a capable leader and must possess some degree of charm in person. You would know better than I, of course.

It also seems like your nation, like mine, has confronted some difficult financial choices recently; at least your Parliament has confronted Portugal's looming pension problem in a meaningful if not entirely satisfactory way, which is more than I can say about our Congress and our pension problem here in the USA.

As one lawyer to another, I say to place your trust and hopes in the rule of law, and to remember that the most important, yet least understood, decisions about what life will be like in the future in a civilized nation are made in its courts and not its parliaments. Do not forget that you play an important role in that system.

Thanks for your note, [Portuguese Reader], and I hope to hear from you again.

- TL

September 17, 2010

Waiting at the Mall

The audible-alarm inventory control system here enjoys the same respect that audible car alarms do on the street: none at all.
Published with Blogger-droid v1.5.9

Happy Birthday America

In a very real sense, today is the anniversary of the birth of our nation. On September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the original Constitution was signed by representatives of the thirteen states of the United States of America, and submitted for ratification to those states. Yes, our independence was proclaimed between July 3 and July 5 as signatures were gathered on the Declaration of Independence, and that is usually the bigger celebration. But the foundational law of our nation is not the Declaration but rather the Constitution.

Our current form of government, the embodiment of the real political genius of that generation of remarkable men who founded our nation, came into existence on what we celebrate now as Constitution Day. There are no parades, there are no fireworks, there is no day off work, there are no barbeques or beer busts or used car sales to celebrate Constitution Day.

But there ought to be. The Constitution fulfills the promise of the Declaration; where the Declaration announces our ideals, the Constitution gives life to them. It is ultimately the Constitution, not the Declaration, that actually puts in place meaningful protections to our individual freedoms, that actualizes our rights and our power as citizens and as free people, and which sets up a meaningful and generally admirable system of self-government. We can certainly disagree about the extent to which the system of limited government is being honored today or whether there are modifications to the system that we need to face contemporary challenges. The brilliance of the original scheme shows through in the fact that we can have such discussions, and do so in a civilized and non-violent manner.

So far, Mr. Franklin, we have kept the Republic. There have been some times our margin of doing so have been thin, but we've pulled it off. Let us hope that 223 years from now, another American can say the same thing.

Amway For The 2010's

The other day I was escorting a prospect through the firm's lobby. There were several people there, including another attorney who was talking with an attractive woman in her forties, and this attorney said, "You might want to talk to TL here about that, it seems like the sort of thing he might be interested in," and practically shot out the front door. So I was left talking with this woman who first established that we had some common social acquaintances, and then proceeded to pitch me on MonaVie.

A quick glance at the glossy 8 by 14 sheet of written material revealed to me that 1) it was badly out of date in that it indicated that "very few baby boomers are now in their 40's,"* 2) the product in question was fruit juice, and 3) this was a multi-level marketing scheme. Is MonaVie a scam? If you ask me, anything sold through a multi-level marketing mechanism becomes a scam sooner or later. There are certainly appreciable numbers of people who have stuck their necks out to explain why they think it is a scam.

Now, it's not hard to see how when you sell fruit juice for forty dollars a quart you can get to a fairly high amount of revenue in the first place or how there would be considerable profit left over for the various tiers in your marketing pyramid. As a business model, I approve of huge profit, all other things being equal. But I have real doubts that this is a particularly ripe business opportunity.  The real flaw I see here is that competing products are readily and cheaply available. Who the hell is going to pay forty dollars for 750 ml of something they can get in a 2 liter bottle for about a tenth of the price at their supermarket, bearing a label that reads "Ocean Spray" instead of "MonaVie"? Suckers, that's who. So how are you going to sucker them?

By touting your product as possessing magical qualities, that's how. The marketing material dwells on the pseudoscience of antioxidants as an anti-aging measure. Drink MonaVie and you'll never get old! Well, sorry, but you will. Fruit juice may contain a large concentration of helpful nutrients and essential vitamins, but super fruit juices sold on the strength of their antioxidant content are the modern version of snake oil and there are potential harms -- there are hints that certain kinds of antioxidants in large enough doses can actually suppress your body's immunodefense system; the most commonly-touted antioxident, resveratrol, may actually increase the risk of the very harms it is deployed to mitigate or prevent when not used appropriately. A morning of looking around the science available on the internet tells me that there is no substantial scientific consensus on any of the purported health benefits of any particular antioxidant, much less that of an antioxidant cocktail like MonaVie. There may be some health benefits, and there are some hints of real promise and progress to be made. But "science" doesn't know for sure that any of the four varieties of antioxidants (ascorbic acid or "vitamin C"; tocopherols or "vitamin E"; polyphenols like resveratrol; or carotenoids like lycopene from tomatoes) does anything even resembling the claims made in fundamentally dishonest marketing materials associated with products.

My conclusion after a very brief survey of scientific literature is that MonaVie sells sweet, purply woo at forty dollars a bottle. Your mileage may vary, but no sane consumer of even average intelligence would buy the stuff without having first had their critical thinking skills suspended through the use of dishonest claims (largely based on testimonials rather than cited scientific reports in peer-reviewed journals) about its purported health benefits.

The real proof, though, is that most any MonaVie representative you come across has a day job. The woman I spoke to was employed as a mortgage broker. If she was really making such good money selling a healthful product that actually excited her and gave her joy, why would she keep her day job? No, at best this is a sideline and most likely she got suckered in by a sales pitch from her upline in the MLM pyramid and bought hundreds of dollars worth of this fruit juice, realized that she can't sell the product and that the only way to do anything worthwhile is to sell "the system" instead, and therefore is now looking to unload these bottles of grossly overpriced blueberry smoothies on the next, greater fool.

Who isn't going to be me.

* Really? Very few boomers left in their 40's?  What is this, the Clinton Administration? A baby boomer is someone who was born in the several years after World War II ended, from around 1945 to some indeterminate, arbitrary date in the early 1950's. As I can personally attest, the children of baby boomers are now entering their 40's. Boomers are entering retirement age although thanks to the financial crash of 2008, many are postponing retirement for a few years so as to recover their assets before ceasing work, and who could blame them?

According to the corporate website, the ingredients are a proprietary blend of: "Açai, white grape, apple, acerola, aronia, purple grape, cranberry, passion fruit, prune, kiwi, blueberry, wolfberry, camu camu, pomegranate, lychee fruit, pear, banana, cupuaçu, and bilberry." Cupuaçu is probably the trendiest ingredient in that list; açai used to be almost totally unknown ten years ago but now you can get açai juice fairly cheaply and without much difficulty at grocery stores all over California. Not that MonaVie cares about that, particularly.

September 16, 2010

A Birthday Challenge

As part of her present for my 40th birthday, The Wife got me Thomas Keller's book Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. For those of you who aren't chef groupies, Chef Keller is the owner and executive chef of The French Laundry, considered by many to be America's finest restaurant, and several other high-profile establishments in Las Vegas and New York. Many amateur foodies have fantasies about spending an evening cooking with the likes of Thomas Keller. As for myself, I think that time would be about as productive as a round of golf with Tiger Woods - the skill level is so far advanced of my own that everything would simply fly over my head and not register.

To say that Chef Keller's recipes and techniques are intimidating to this amateur cook is something of an understatement. Soffit House enjoys a good reputation as a place where good food is available for guests, but it's not The French Laundry. To properly replicate what Chef Keller has got going on, I'll need about ten thousand dollars' worth of specialized equipment I don't have and about a hundred thousand dollars to add a thousand extra square feet to my kitchen, which will have to be completely redone, so that there is somewhere to store and use this equipment. Some of this equipment will include a dehydrator, a series of strainers, a chamber vacuum packer, a dedicated ice maker, at least two immersion circulators, and a series of twenty-gallon Lexan containers. About forty extra square feet of counter space would be helpful, too. 

I'm sure Chef Keller and his staff have good food-quality blowtorches available at places like The French Laundry and per se. As for me, I've also still not found a container of butane with a Z-type nozzle to fit in to the handheld blowtorch I bought to produce Maillard reactions. Propane and LPG are easy to find but I'd rather not use them on food. Give me some time and I'm sure I can find that the butane fuel with the appropriate nozzle needed to let me brown up an entire leg of lamb. Explaining to the guys at the hardware store what I was up to was an amusing but frustrating exercise; one of them seemed to like the idea but the other thought I was just plain nuts.

And I would need to spend about eight hours a week hunting down the rare and highly specific ingredients he's got listed. Not that I blame him for being very particular about his ingredients -- I quite agree that not all ingredients are equal and sometimes there is simply no substitute for the best stuff you can get. For instance, if you're going to do really, really good chocolates, Valrhona is the way to go. It's got to be spectacular when it all comes together.

Noodles and gravy it ain't.

For example, there's Tagliatelle of Cuttlefish and Hawaiian Heart of Peach Palm, White Nectarine, Sweet Pepper Confetti, and Vinaigrette A L'encre se Deiche. Chef Keller calls this a "simple dish." I've no idea what "a l'encre se deiche" even means; it's made from the ink of the cuttlefish, mustard, canola oil, and the zest of a Meyer lemon. Perhaps more interesting is the question of where in the high desert I'm going to find cuttlefish. I'm in an environment where most of the people I run into on a daily basis have no idea what a cuttlefish even is, and my guess is that Chef Keller begins preparing this dish with live animals that he can have flown in to his Napa Valley restaurants directly from the Israeli coast of the Mediterranean Sea because his customers will pay whatever he demands because it's The French Laundry. 

So after what sounds like a rather delicate prep on these little beasts (so as to extract the ink without contaminating it with roe or any of the cuttlefish innards) they get packed into the bag with an herb sachet -- another technique I'll need to learn is how to make such a thing suitable for use in the sous vide oven -- and cook the meat for ten hours. After that, I'm to chill it and prepare it for presentation, for which he offers this helpful instruction:  "Lay the cuttlefish flat on the work surface. Trim the edges as needed to straighten, then cut crosswise into 'tagliatelle' about 1/8 inch wide. Toss with a drizzle of the cooking liquid."

How about a simple salad? We have New Crop Onions, Pickled Ramps, and Sauce Soubise. The ingredient list is half the page long. The Albertson's down the street does not carry ramps. If I were to ask for ramps, they would point me to the handicapped access and likely not even know I was talking about a vegetable. For both the soubise sauce and for pickling those ramps, he calls for champagne vinegar. Getting that in Quartz Hill may prove something of a challenge too; most people here don't have a very clear idea of what prosciutto is, and to the extent they do, they don't understand why those silly Italians slice their ham so damn thinly.

Then, there's the "ice cream sandwich" dessert.  It has 31 separate ingredients, including five different kinds of milk-cream variants, six different kinds of cocoa-chocolate ingredients, three different kinds of butter, and more eggs than a chicken can give you in a week. Total prep time looks like about six hours, not counting one day's freezing time for the three different kinds of ice cream, one of which includes no dairy products whatsoever. It's got to be extraordinary to eat, but wow.

This, um, isn't going to be happening any time soon in Soffit House. In the short term, I can get at the molecular gastronomy portion of the book for food safety and preparation tips. I've already learned that I just plain need to abandon the idea of green vegetables in the sous vide altogether and do a big-pot blanch for them every time. After that, I'll get at what Chef Keller calls "the basics" like his mushroom stock; the aromatic sachets that he adds to his vegetables while preparing them sous vide; and his quintuple-deglazing technique for a "quick sauce" made from bones, veal stock, chicken stock, and leeks.

After that, when I feel technically proficient enough to attempt a French Laundry-caliber recipe, I'll be looking at substitutes for at least half of the premium ingredients. For instance, I can probably find calamari steaks and substitute those for the cuttlefish. Meyer lemons are sometimes available at the fruit stand up near Stinking Bakersfield. A fresh heart of palm just isn't going to be available at all here, although the gourmet deli does have canned hearts of palm from time to time. So if everything comes together at exactly the right time I might find myself in a position to do something like this, to show The Wife just how much I appreciate her and want to impress her.

You Can Drive I-94 Faster

High speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison is projected to reach speeds in excess of 79 miles an hour.  Ooh. Aah.

Your tax dollars at work.  $810 million of it, or about one-tenth of the total high-speed rail dollars in the stimulus bill, to be spent so a train can go from Milwaukee to Madison at freeway speeds.

Meanwhile, California's debt-financed high-speed rail transport project has yet to lay a single track, is over ten billion dollars short of the money needed because people forgot to account for inflation when they asked the voters for bonds, and will need to charge fares higher than commuter flights for transit between the two biggest economic hubs of the project, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Which is all a damn shame, because I've seen in Europe just how awesome a real high-speed train line can be, how it can spur tourism and economic activity. But our friends in Europe invested in rail at the right time; we made other choices about how to invest in our infrastructure.

So now high speed rail in the U.S. is "Reinvestment in America."  Are you feeling' in yet?

Three Dimensional Lime Matrix Explains All

I'm sure that real economists have thought about this issue already and my thoughts are well behind formal economic teaching. But for me, it started with The Wife asking for a packet of coffee sweetener for her margarita.  We observed that limes bought from Costco are just not as sweet as the ones we got from Trader Joe's the previous week.  It occurred to me that we paid at least twice as much for limes at Trader Joe's as we had at Costco.  But I preferred the higher-quality, higher-priced limes to the alternative, which required sweetener to overcome the sour taste.

Then it occurred to me that there were those sorts of people for whom the more sour limes were more desirable because they were less sensitive to the quality issue. They might be using the limes for something other than margaritas, they might be unaware of or indifferent to the idea that different limes have different tastes, they might be adding so much sweetener to whatever they were making that the sourness of the cheap limes didn't matter.  But for whatever reason, they wanted sour limes where I wanted sweet ones.

Now, I'd been considering comparative microeconomics the previous day anyway, as a result of explaining to a client that while the myth is that drug dealers make huge amounts of money for essentially no work, the reality is that there is so much competition for retail illegal drug sales that street-level dealers have to cut their profit margins to nearly nothing. The result being that drug dealers need economic support while they attempt to ascend the ladder of their criminal organizations. In our case, that economic support was the device of pooling resources: six drug dealers in a two-bedroom apartment unable to come up with $800 a month rent, ergo, an eviction against them. So if drug dealing were all that profitable, wouldn't six dealers be able to come up with $800 between them and thus avoid having to come in contact with the law? Clients angry at their tenants resist this line of reasoning, but I can find no flaw with it.

That was why I had microeconomics on my mind as I encountered the sweet-versus-sour lime dichotomy. I mentally graphed out the matrix as I'd been taught in college, with price the vertical axis and quantity on the horizontal axis, and two curves representing supply (increasing quantity as price rises) and demand (decreasing quantity as price rises) and with the intersection of those two curves representing the maximization of the rectangular area between that and the source point of the graph as the equilibrium point. Easy stuff, any microeconomics student should be able to do that.

But this did not explain the whole phenomenon with the limes. I preferred the pricier but higher-quality limes; other preferred the less-expensive but less sweet limes. I had been taught that when one good substitutes for another, that the substitute good works on its own microeconomic matrix. But here, it wasn't a question of a similar good. This isn't comparing limes and lemons. This is comparing high-quality limes to low-quality limes.

There needs to be a third dimension to the graph, I thought. Actually, I think I said it out loud, but fortunately The Wife didn't hear me because if she had, it would have been a complete non sequitur.  But the microeconomic graph representing the market for limes needs a "Z" axis, too, because sweet limes and sour limes are still within the market for limes globally, and are not really distinct goods from one another. 

Presumably, the sweet limes are more desirable than the sour limes, and therefore command a higher price. Furthermore, lime merchants can be expected to know a thing or two about the quality of the goods they are bringing to market and will demand prices accordingly.  I got to wondering what the curve would look like, and assumed that it would reflect a lower quantity of sweet limes as compared to sour limes, precisely because the price would increase, and because it dovetailed with my experience of seeing dozens of limes (which turned out to be sweet) available for purchase at Trader Joe's but hundreds of limes (which turned out to be sour) available for purchase at Costco. 

Thinking about what the graph would describe, my assumption was it would be a cone, or at least a section of a cone. A two-dimensional cross-section "slice" of the cone taken at the price apex would represent the price for the one and only superlatively sweetest possible lime in existence, the one so sweet it tastes like candy coming right off the tree.  Another "slice" would represent the price for the sourest but most plentiful limes out there, the ones used at the industrial foodservice level, for which only the tartness mattered because so much sugar would be added that the sour component of their taste was irrelevant.

But it might not necessarily be that way; it could be that most limes are sweet and command the higher price, and Costco assembles the remainders and sells them at a discount price.  Experience, however, suggested that sour limes were more plentiful but cheaper, so it seemed natural to assume that sweet limes would be more scarce and that explained the price differential.

Why aren't all limes sweet?  Wouldn't lime growers would prefer to sell limes that command a higher price as opposed to a lower price, all other things being equal?

In a world with a three-dimensional microeconomic matrix, however, all other things aren't equal.  The market will find its equilibrium point in such a world where the intersection of the supply curve, demand curve, and quality curves maximize the amount of money to be paid for the good in question.  That point might not be the point where all the goods that are available are of the highest quality. That point will be at the intersection between the arc describing where consumers find the balance between price and quality to be maximally acceptable, and the arc describing where producers find the balance between price and quantity to be maximally acceptable.

So my epiphany was that while individual consumers might prefer sweet limes to sour, the market as a whole might prefer sour limes to sweet, because that represented the efficient equilibrium point for the market. That's why my margaritas came out sour instead of sweet.

September 13, 2010

Pipe Implements Price

I expected better of you, MSNBC. "Gas Pipe in Chicago Effects Prices in Milwaukee Area." Really?

Perhaps I should not have expected you to get that one right. Perhaps this is advanced stuff for, you know, journalists. Perhaps this is too complicated for some people. Perhaps it's simply too confusing.

But I don't think it's really all that hard once you learn it. And more to the point, MSNBC, you're in the business of providing concise, clear, correct headlines to the news someone else (in this case, the Associated Press) writes for you. The only input you have in the story is to slap a headline on it. Nine words are what your viewers take from you to learn if they want to read the story or not. You should take a moment to learn how to get them right in the future.

There are two levels to this writing trap. The way out of them is to remember the parts of speech. Remember that there are nouns -- "a noun is a person, place or thing," as you might recall -- and verbs, which are "action words." So your first step in choosing between "affect" and "effect" is to decide whether you're using a noun or a verb. Here,

This is where it gets tricky -- the words "affect" and "effect" can both be used as verbs or nouns.  So you need to remember four definitions instead of only two.


To Affect something is to alter or change it.

To Effect something is to enact or implement it.

"A" for "affect" equals "a" for "alter."

"E" for "effect" equals "e" for "enact."


An "affect" is one's attitude -- a psychological display of emotion.

An "effect" is an end product of something else -- a result.

"A" for "affect" equals "a" for "attitude."

"E" for "effect" equals "e" for "end result."

So -- what's the relationship of the gas pipe leak in Chicago to gas prices in Milwaukee? One is changing the other. A gas pipe leak in Chicago will affect prices in Milwaukee.  (Note the use of "affect" as a verb.)  Milwaukee consumers paid $2.70 a gallon before the leak and $2.88 a gallon after the leak.

The effect of the pipe leak in Chicago was an eighteen-cent-per-gallon increase in Milwaukee.  (Note the use of "effect" as a noun.)

So who (olr what) effected gas prices in Milwaukee? The owners of the various Milwaukee-area gas stations, not the pipe leak in Chicago. 

After the prices went up, Milwaukee consumers exhibited a slightly more depressed affect.

Come on, MSNBC. Get it right. You're in the business of using the English language in a more or less correct fashion. And this isn't the first time someone's tried to teach this distinction in a clear, easy-to-remember fashion -- an aardvark can help you out if my explanation didn't help you.

POSTSCRIPT -- I also didn't expect that a pop-up ad on MSNBC would infect my computer with a virus that would prove somewhat awkward to remove. MSNBC, when you outsource your advertisements, you outsource your ethics, and your ad provider may have paid you some money but they harmed your customer. He won't be back.

September 10, 2010

Talk Radio

I've done live television before, being interviewed about higher profile cases I've handled. I found answering questions from the host easy but for some reason I wound up looking unanimated and strange on the screen. Part of that was that the TV technician counseled me to look at a spot that wasn't the dead center of the camera lens and that played me false. But part of it is that the remote studio is not a relaxing environment and somehow not conducive to conveying my emotional state while talking about a subject.

So I was just a bit wary when a client approached me and offered to have me be the guest during his hour-long weekly talk radio show. The subject of the show was an aspect of my practice that I'm quite familiar with so again, the subject matter wasn't the issue. I just didn't want to fall flat.

I found, much to my pleasant surprise, that radio is a much more forgiving format than television. I didn't have to worry about facial gestures, just about speaking into the microphone. The technology on the mics and sound engineering was such that a normal, conversational voice was all I needed and I use vocal intonations enough anyway that I felt able to convey animation and emotional impact easily. My client proved a genial and capable host, and since both he and I were conscious of the timing for commercial breaks and the need to avoid dead air, we made what was hopefully an interesting hour of radio for the literally tens of people who may have been listening.

Live talk radio is much easier than live TV. I'd do live talk radio again in a heartbeat.

September 9, 2010

Root Of My Disaffection

Once upon a time, I was involved with politics, on the right-of-center side of things, and interested in helping search for the issues of the future and the new solutions to those issues that the conservative movement could help bring about. Then something strange happened -- Bill Clinton got elected President and this strange mania seemed to capture all the people whose thoughtful and creative energies I had formerly admired. This happened just about the same time I was beginning my career and I found that shifting tracks and doing something nonpolitical was a relief.

Not that the left is any better, but I grew up in a world where the intellectual energy had been sucked out of the left-of-center portion of the body politic a long time ago (one suspects, in a fit of collective partisan mania beginning about January 4, 1981) and I've never had any expectation that it would ever come back. The answers to social, and in particular governmental, problems has more or less always been the same from the left for as long as I can remember anything -- we need more government control of stuff we don't like, for government subsidies for stuff we do like, and higher taxes to pay for it all.  The post-Watergate Congress was, it seems to me, the last burst of creative political energy from the Democrats; the first incarnation of what is now known as was the last burst of creative political energy on the Republican side of the aisle.

Steven Taylor, and through him David Frum, comment on a similar sort of phenomena going on today. Think tanks are a lot more "tank" than "think" these days, they say, having regressed from institutions where people spend their time looking at the world and coming up with ways to make it better into op-ed factories expressing minor variations on what are essential the same cookie-cutter talking points. 

What I'd add to Prof. Taylor's comment is that while I think what he's talking about is quite correct, it is also not something confined to the right, and it is nothing new.  Ideas don't matter any more.  Good policies don't matter anymore.  The policies are going to be what they're going to be no matter who's in charge.  The only thing that matters in politics is if my tribe is stronger than your tribe so I can have my way and therefore I can enjoy the spectacle of you grinding your teeth in frustration while I'm doing it.

September 7, 2010

What I Learned In Cooking Class

As an early birthday present, and as an opportunity to get me back for all those times I've indulged her, The Wife enrolled us in a sous vide cooking class that we went to over the weekend. It was great fun! I was already well aware of what the sous vide water oven can do with meat so this was not a huge surprise to me. But there were plenty of things I learned about anyway.

  • Better knife technique from one of the sous-chefs helping out with the class. Choke up on the handle and pinch the heel of the blade itself; don't run your index finger down the spine of the blade.
  • All that stuff in my sous vide manual about avoiding alcohol, using only powdered garlic and powdered onion, and exercising restraint with other spices is all bullshit. The Doctors Eades who market the product apparently just like their food bland.
  • They also like their food overcooked; the temperatures in the sous vide manual are too high.
  • High temperatures will soften vegetables nicely. Pre-heat the sous vide to a high temperature, maybe 185 degrees, before adding vegetables and then immediately put them in an ice bath to blanch them while still in the bag, and they will stay greener. 
  • Unlike meats, you can easily cook vegetables for too long in a sous vide.  An hour or so should do the trick.
  • A ceramic santoku knife, although much lighter than the steel I'm used to, slices through raw potatoes like nobody's business. I may need to look in to lighter knives.
  • Speaking of potatoes, I seemed to be the only one who thought potatoes were interesting subjects for cooking. I love eating potatoes and I notice they're popular whenever I serve them. Why don't other amateur cooks understand this and spend some time figuring out how to please their guests with this very affordable staple? Part of the ongoing and thoughtless campaign against carbohydrates, I suppose.
  • As I learned through experimentation a few days later, too much fat added to the vegetable during cooking will leach out the chlorophyll and deaden the color, so I'll add to that -- sous vide your vegetables without butter or other fats, add those later. Adding fat to vegetables this way is pretty much the same thing as using a crock pot, and I already have one of those. I didn't learn this lesson at the class but I learned it as a result of the class.
  • The sous vide is ideal for making delicate French dessert custards and silks, because the material will never boil and harden the egg or egg component in the ingredient. The sauvignon we had on the dessert was divine. Getting the liquid in the sealed bag, however, can be quite a trick.
  • Melons can be compressed, softened, and infused with flavor (and sugar, if they are not naturally sweet enough for your taste) in the sous vide, at temperatures similar to those used for vegetables.
  • Pearl onions taste great with a sprinkling of cinnamon, and they squirt free of their skins easily when you parboil and blanch them beforehand.
  • Olive oil will produce the much-prized Maillard reaction just fine as long as it isn't smoking too much. Heat the pan up until the oil in it smokes, then let it cool until it stops smoking, then use the pan to brown your protein.
  • We bought the right vacuum bag sealer. The one sold by the manufacturer of the Sous Vide Supreme got demo'ed at the class, was unreliable at sealing the bags, and it looked difficult to use.
  • Ice baths for "blanching" the still-bagged food just out of a sous vide should be 80% ice and 20% cold water. 
  • From a fellow student, a tip: the problem with using the butane torch that came as part of a gift crème brûlée kit was that it was too small and puny. No need for a special "foodservice" butane torch; one marketed for light soldering would be easier and safer to handle, cost less money, and hold more fuel. Obviously, do not handle while drunk, but that rule should have applied even for the puny torch.
  • Once you've got your food above 140 degrees, the longer it cooks, the safer is is -- and thus the magic of the sous vide, which lets you keep the flavor and texture of rarer meats with the safety prized by lovers of well-done meat. The struggle with more traditional means of cooking isn't exposing the food to those kinds of temperatures, it's getting the food itself to elevate to those temperatures fast enough and for long enough that you don't lose the taste, texture, and enjoyment of what you're going to eat.
Not bad for an hour and a half, plus of course we ate the food we'd made which was quite good -- 1 hour was not quite enough for the potatoes but everything else turned out nicely. Kind of a high fat meal, because the potatoes and onions had both olive oil and butter in them and the lamb is high fat to start with even before it got seared in the olive oil. It's hard to go wrong with your taste when you use lots of good fats.

We didn't much like the traffic getting there or back but this sort of thing just isn't going to be found in the Antelope Valley. The rest of my present is on its way and should provide me with many challenging recipes and techniques to try, even if I can't realistically make use of all of them at home because I just don't have the budget or space or experience needed to upgrade from a sous vide oven to an immersion circulator or a salamander broiler around.

What I need next is a fine-mesh cone strainer for my sauces and stocks, and I think that I can do better than the price demanded for one by Snooty Kitchen Stores, Inc. They offered a nice class but their equipment isn't worth the price. In fact, I found a reasonable substitute for one-ninth the price on my very first search.

Burning The Koran

Supplanting, but related to, the sort-of-mosque that's sort-of-not-built-yet at a place that's sort-of-near-Ground Zero, is the story about a flamboyant Florida pastor who plans to hold a bonfire of Korans on September 11.

I'm not a fan of book burnings of any sort. Burning it is an act of symbolic hatred and aggression towards Muslims and is in extraordinarily bad taste. It will likely have a net counterproductive result. And the most effective way I can imagine to discredit Islam is to encourage people to read the Koran. They won't like a great deal of what they find in there; a lot of it is morally indefensible.

And the commander of American forces in Afghanistan has very publicly pointed out that by having a Koran-burning ceremony, this pastor will be inflaming the masses of people whose hearts and minds America is busily trying to win, at a cost of much blood and treasure.

But it is perfectly legal, perfectly Constitutional. Maybe not perfectly legal; as I understand it, a local air quality management board has denied a permit because of concern about toxic fumes that the bonfire would release, which I find quite amusing.

If Muslims, and in particular Muslim Americans, find this act offensive, they are free to protest it in whatever form they wish, ideally to persuade the pastor not to do it at all. Pointing out that a Bible-burning would be offensive to Christians strikes me as an excellent starting point for an argument as to why the pastor ought not to have a bonfire of the Koran.

In America, no one has a right to be protected from someone else making an offensive statement. There is no violence planned for the bonfire of the Koran and assuming that the air permit issue has been cleared up (so to speak) there is no legal impediment to the demonstration, nor should there be. This particular bit of public expression strikes me as reckless, in poor taste, and profoundly ill-considered. But we don't need the Constitution to protect speech that is popular or even generally acceptable. We need it to protect speech that is controversial.

This more than qualifies.

New Deal Meets Trickle Down

It's fair to say that a trio of announcements from the White House are enough to signal a new tone, if not necessarily a new policy, on economic issues. The policies are the result of the continuing failure of the 2009  stimulus package (and the Bush stimulus package before it) and the continuing failure of ultra-low interest rates to produce substantial growth in the economy, particularly with regards to job creation -- and therefore also caused in part by substantial political pressure on Democrats who have come to fear losing control of Congress in the mid-term elections (although the odds still favor narrow retention of Congress by the party in power).

The proposals are these:

For those of you liberals who are keeping track at home, two out of three of these qualify as direct corporate welfare and the third is -- what the 2009 stimulus was sold to us as having done but apparently did not. Not that there aren't still New Deal cheerleaders out there, but jeez, why not go the last step and revive the WPA?  I've a soft spot in my heart for the CCC and that might produce some actual long-term environmental good, so why not let's pay college-age kids to plant trees instead of going to school again!  (Or we could just continue requiring timber companies to replant as a condition of getting permits to log national forests, but if I were so smart I'd be in the White House, right?)

Now, I like the idea of lower taxes and using tax credits and deductions to mold economic behavior. So it's not like criticizing these policy proposals comes easy for me. But recall that the 2010 deficit was already projected to be $1.5 trillion, so we're looking at raising that to something like $1.7 trilllion here. Recall also that we were promised $800 billion in "shovel-ready" projects which a year and a half later have produced -- some road resurfacing and a lot of pork. Consequently, the deficit comes with ten percent unemployment.

Again for those of you liberals playing along at home, I know you feel the instinct to say, "Without the stimulus, it would have been much worse! It would have been 1930 all over again!" Maybe, maybe not. We won't and can't know that; to say it would or wouldn't have been 1930 all over again is an article of faith and nothing more for anyone on either side of that dispute. I am skeptical of claims that the house would have fallen in completely; the rolling crash of 2007-2009 was not the result of commodities producers reaching peak market capitalization, but rather because the public came to understand that financial services institutions were sitting upon a larger-than-previously-realized amount of nonperforming and undersecuritized real estate loans. Cutting losses means accepting losses, and therefore a lot of institutions took losses. Then the government got involved and played favorites with some and not-favorites with others, and now we're... well, we're where we are, with anemic GDP growth that is not replacing jobs lost over the past couple of years.

So I'm hearing President Obama say that foregoing and/or spending another two hundred billion to two hundred fifty billion dollars or so is necessary to start creating jobs -- but fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. (Wait, I wasn't fooled the first time Obama suggested this. Or the time before that, when President Bush suggested it.) Spending nearly four times this much money before didn't do much of anything; why should it do anything this time? Someone needs to explain to me why adding this money to the debt, at this time, in this way, is going to do something different than the last time we bloated the deficit and punted the problem of paying for it all to the next generation.

I'm at a loss to say which facet of this amazes and disgusts me the most. Is it:

While I'd love to see lower taxes we need government revenue so we're just going to have to accepting paying our taxes at the current, or even a slightly increased, rate for the foreseeable future. While I like new roads as much as anyone else that's about the only tangible stimulus result we've seen and it isn't doing a whole lot for the economy. And really, I'm supposed to come back and eat at the trough of stimulus spending for a third time?

This is the marriage of the worst facets of New Deal economics with the worst facets of trickle-down economics -- all that we need is to blend in some Great Society and then the package will be a complete ménage à trois of useless deficit spending. Oh, wait, we got some Great Society earlier this year -- it was a big f--ing deal, remember? Nothing good will come of this and in the long run, America is going to regret it more than it likes the benefits. If they get behind these ideas as a whole, Democrats deserve to lose Congress this November -- not that free-spending Republicans deserve to win it back.

Ugh. I'm going to go clean up dog vomit in the other room because that's bound to be more pleasant than contemplating this any further.

September 4, 2010

Existential Threat

Michael Bennet, an incumbent Senator from Michigan Colorado running for re-election, said this at a recent campaign event that "We have managed to acquire $13 trillion of debt on our balance sheet ... In my view, we have nothing to show for it."

Thing is, Senator Bennet, a Democrat, voted for both the Bush and Obama stimulus bills, for both Medicare part D and the Obama-era healthcare reform bills, increased education funding, and a host of other hugely expensive bills. And he's now upset that we're in debt. Democrats discovering the need for fiscal austerity in late 2010 is a bit like Republicans discovering the need for Constitutional restraints on the power of the Federal government in early 2009. Only when your own excesses turn around and bit you in the ass do you condemn them.

In fact, politicians of either party have yet to truly explore or appreciate the depth of our debt problem. Looking at other industrialized nations whose governments have fallen into serious financial trouble -- Iceland, Greece, Italy -- have tended to examine total debt as a percentage of the nation's GDP.  But as Bruce Bartlett points out, the real issue is not the ability of the entire national economy to handle the debt, but rather the ability of the government to handle the debt. Bartlett suggests that the appropriate ratio to examine is not debt-to-GDP but debt-to-revenues.  After all, it is from governmental revenues and only governmental revenues that this debt is financed. And of the industrialized nations of the world in financial trouble, the United States has the worst debt-to-revenue ratio, worse even than now-infamous Greece.

Bartlett points out that this macroeconomic ratio is what's important not just because it reflects the impact of the government to finance its debt, but also the potential that debt to be effectively reduced over time by way of inflation. Here we cross the line from fiscal policy to monetary policy -- inflation in the U.S. is governed more than anything else by the prime lending rate set by the Federal Reserve, whose marching orders are to keep inflation as low as possible. But the right move may well be to increase interest rates and start inflating the money. This makes sense if governmental revenues are going to increase along with that inflation, while the debt remains in constant dollars, making today's thirteen trillion dollars reduce in real economic impact by five percent a year or whatever the inflation rate is.

Bartlett's point is that If governmental revenues are low compared to the debt as a whole, the impact of inflation effect will be diminished. Put in simpler terms, Bartlett's worry is that we're so far in debt that we won't be able to inflate our way out of it. It's hard to say if this concern is valid or not; we're in uncharted waters here.

I think Bartlett ought to look at debt-to-revenue ratios in tandem with interest-to-outlay rates. This would reveal not only our government's ability to handle the debt it has, but also the extent to which the debt impacts the government's ability to fulfill its core functions of national defense, administration of justice, sustaining infrastructure, and even tax collection itself. Here again, the United States finds little cause for optimism.  Finding this data turns out to be a considerable research challenge, but I can determine that the U.S. paid 8.5% of every dollar spent by Uncle Sam in 2009 on interest upon governmental debt, which is more than double what the UK paid in the same period of time -- only 4% of every one of Her Majesty's pounds are lost to interest.

Historically when a globally-leading economy has reached such a crisis point, there has not been such extensive governmental debt; other crises have been caused by overextension of governmental financial commitments and met with devaluation of the currency (something which never works out well over the long term) or spinning off suddenly-too-expensive set of geographical commitments to become independent -- think about the Roman Empire during the fourth and fifth centuries, the Kingdom of Span at the end of the seventeenth century, the British Empire in the 1920's, or the USSR in 1989. If it seems to you that I pick dramatic examples demonstrating existential collapses of significant world powers, well, there's a reason for that, because that's what we're up against.

When the Romans, Spanish, British, and Soviets lost the ability to continue paying for core governmental functions, they stopped existing as major world powers, and in two of those cases stopped existing altogether. Note that considering those examples, the more sophisticated financial systems were in place, the decline of the various empires came more and more precipitously.

Politicians like Senator Bennet are not just hypocrites and Johnny-come-latelies to the issue of rectifying our unsustainable spending and debt accumulation habits. By pumping up short-term spending with massive debt, guys like him have placed us in a position where it seems we have no intelligent option but to endure tax hikes in exchange for spending cuts. Since such a prescription is political poison, Bennet will only offer that sort of medicine when a political gun is held to his head. Bennet feels it the form of political pressure endangering his re-election. But the taste of what we must do is so bitter that no one is peddling the whole picture. And that means Bennet and his ilk are simply not to be trusted with handling what is an existential threat to the United States.

I'm not convinced that the Tea Party is really aimed at this issue; Tea Partiers want to repeal Obamacare because they seem to think that a robust healthcare system is somehow an attack on personal freedom. This strikes me as profoundly illogical. The reason to repeal Obamacare and replace it with nothing is that we aren't rich enough to afford Obamacare. The Tea Party crowd has been silent, so far as I can tell, on the issue of whether we should cut the defense budget; they tend to overlap with the "Support Our Troops" yellow-ribbon-wearing crowd, so drawing down the total size of the military does not strike me as a Tea Party agenda bullet item.

Entitlement reform is great politics when it's someone else's entitlements you're talking about reforming, no matter where on the spectrum you fall or what label you affix to yourself. Means-testing Social Security more aggressively, however, earns you the wrath of large numbers of voters. Changing the way tax deductions are given for home mortgage interest payments would affect at least a hundred million Americans and effectively raise their taxes, so no one is talking about that.

There are groups out there starting to take debt seriously. But there aren't very many of them in Congress, and there don't seem to be very many of them running for Congress, either. Until our collective backs are up against a wall, chances are no one will confront this issue in a meaningful way. It will take a figure of remarkable political skill and vision to lead us out of this problem. Such a figure once began a struggle of similar magnitude with these words:
I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make all allowances for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the government: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.
That was a different struggle, to be sure, but Sir Winston appreciated earlier than his colleagues the nature of the existential threat his nation faced and for years was a political Cassandra unable to recover from the shame of the Gallipoli Campaign until a gun was almost literally held to the heads of Britain. If we do not start appreciating that this problem is one of this magnitude, and instead reward our politicians when they say that they are shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on in this establishment while they are collecting last night's winnings, what we're going to get is more of the same instead of a solution.