28 December 2009

words to live by

"Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities"

27 December 2009

in a related story

I have a couple thoughts on the "war on terror"

or at least, some people have some thoughts

"Maybe the terrorists figure they win everytime we in the West spend millions of man-hours being hassled, inconvenienced, and generally put upon by a myriad of stupid security measures."

"When are we going to rebel and demand a sensible set of precautions?"

Also surprises me how well The Siege holds up as political commentary on this issue. From before 9-11 (by several years) and before all the irrational panic that brought us a regime willing to detain and torture people for no apparent gain to American sovereignty and the safety of its people or way of life.
A couple lines in particular:

"The time has come for one man to suffer in order to save hundreds of lives."
"One Man? What about two, huh? What about six? How about public executions?"
"What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we're doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General, we do that and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for is over. And they've won. They've already won!"

Now I don't think that our Nigerian friend and his tenuous alliances with Yemeni terrorists had thought that line all the way out. I think on the ground floor like this the purpose is to hurt and to hit back at a perceived (and often genuine) oppressor of Muslim brothers around the globe (metaphorically speaking). But it occurs to me that the point of terrorism isn't really to kill people. It's to terrorize, to spread fear and mayhem, and yet somehow the response of governments for decades around the globe is to instill and entrench that fear, and to systemically deploy it themselves? On what variety of thinking does a system of irrational panic and hassle create security or even the illusion of it? It is perfectly rational after a robbery or a assault or a rape to feel a sense of violation and panic, to seek out strong measures to prevent, to protect, to insulate against future violations. But in those cases we have direct and plausible preventative tactics. We could take self-defence classes, buy home security systems, flee to the suburbs, or whatever. Those may be overreactions and be somewhat irrational in a long-term scale (balanced against other needs), but they will have demonstrative effects on the ability of people to purposefully commit harms against us or at least our own ability to resist those attacks. Our actual security will be measurably improved in addition to the considerable improvement in the illusory feeling of security.

I have not seen a demonstrative impact that taking shoes off at the airport or denying people pillows and blankets or personal diversions on the airplane actually prevents people from doing silly and dangerous things like attempting to blow up airplanes. Quite simply if harassing people on more or less unrelated things is the best we can come up with from a systemic viewpoint to react to a notional demand for more security (which I'm not even sure that this in and of itself exists either after events like this, at least not anymore), then we need to think more seriously about calling strongly and immediately for the abolition of most of our security measures and administrations. No decent security administration would have been concerned about this fellow's (read: our) footwear or his (read: our) ability to receive marginal comfort and rest on a transatlantic flight. You know what they would be concerned about? The fact that he disappeared into Yemen and was reputed to be "educated" amongst radical clerics there, that the British government denied him entry to the UK, things like that. If we have a bureaucracy that cannot get facts straight like this and is more worried about presenting appearances, then I think it would be fair to say we should scrap that bureaucracy and start over from scratch with at least some of the following questions as a basis:

1) What actually prevents or deters terrorist incidents on air travel? (if anything)
2) Who commits those acts, can we come up with a reasonable profile of who that might be and will that help us investigate and prevent action by focusing resources? Would that constitute racial profiling and thus be insensible to do or be merely criminal profiling, where is the boundary line between the two. Historically, terrorist acts involving airplanes (American ones that is) have taken a relatively ethnic character between Cubans and Muslims, however historical terrorism in America generally is rather ambivalent to any ethnic or religious considerations as far as a demonstrative pattern. Is our interest preventing terrorism or protecting corporate airlines?
3) What resources do we have available to gather information (via domestic police or international)?
4) Can we coordinate those resources with those of other nation-states or NGOs?
5) What is the maximum/minimum cost that travelers are willing to put up with in terms of hassle, time, and undue attention in order to have an expectation of security (or more to the point, why don't people have a present expectation of security in the relative absence of hostile acts)?
6) If the cost of providing security directly on airplanes exceeds the cost passengers are willing to pay, why subsidize air travel to disguise those costs from consumers?
7) If, in the end, the actual "best" security is to let passengers tackle hostile passengers with threatening intentions, then why all the fuss?

evidence that I am secretly an old man

Check out the 45 and up

Naturally this was something I predicted I would feel (rage and/or apprehension) at the notion of "updating" classic works of fiction and filling them with fistfights, explosions, and womanizing, with the implicit assumption being that there was somehow not enough real content in the original works to hold our attention.

I'm also slightly amused to watch the chipmunks flutter toward worst movie of the year status.

(Update: the 45+ crowd isn't as extreme as it was from the first blush. It was around 5.9 but has gone up somewhat to a now respectable score, though nowhere near as crazy as those teenagers are. I now get to look down my nose upon "fellow" old people as they allow their culture to be defamed in the name of a cheap movie thrill. If I wanted a movie with explosions and fighting that resembles a crime drama with a superhero involved, I will watch the two new Batman movies. Sherlock Holmes was a different species of superhero.)

26 December 2009

Things done to piss me off

Airport security

Still a waste of time.

If it looked like this, we might be improved (as in: things they already ask passengers to do in rare cases that they actually need to do anything at all. The part I'm referring to starts around the 4 minute mark.)

Instead it looks sort of like this.

So, in response to an event that happened because somebody smuggled explosives onto a plane, they're going to... restrict people from getting out of their seats and not give them pillows or blankets?

Mental note: bureaucrats are fucking hopeless.

23 December 2009

distilled list of public ethical positions thus far

Iraq: no
Afghanistan: no
Terrorism: yes and no
Torture: no
Public funding: yes
Public administration: no
Indefinite detention: no
Just war theory: not applicable
Bans on abortion: no
Bans on contraception: no
Carbon tax: yes
Cap and Trade: yes, but no
Religious litmus tests for authority: no
Required submission to authority (ie, police): no
Death penalty: no, but
War: yes
Charity: yes
Home ownership rate: not important
Social safety net: yes, but
Judicial "activism": yes
FISA/surveillance state: no
DUI checkpoints: no
Forfeiture clauses: no
Meat: yes, but
Censorship: no
Immigration: more please
Walls: no
Kidney exchanges/for sale: yes
Legalization: yes, yes, and yes (for drugs, gambling, prostitution)

If there's a pattern there, it should be obvious by now.

The only field I've noticed I'm sort of loathe to make a position on is human cloning. Robotic ethics are also sort of a questionable element (because how would we improve them while still leaving the original operating system intact from tampering). Neither is all that soon a problem yet that I must get to work on the issue.

causations of ethical foundations

"I myself am incredibly skeptical of the ability of most human beings to do much of anything helpful or cooperative at all, much less not kill and maim each other in the absence of even the most basic rules to the contrary, regardless of their source material"

I wanted to clarify or expand this point to see what it was I mean by it. Primarily, what I am referring to is the large percentage of Americans, or presumably other nationalities within constitutional mandates, who have imbued their founding documents with divine aspirations or at least divine inspiration in order to solidify the meaning of such documented legal frameworks as binding laws for themselves. Regardless of the endless and meaningless discussion over whether these were religious or secular men who wrote the Constitution, it seems trivial to apply the same "rigorous" logic that applies to the writings contained in the Bible (that they must be the infallible word of god) to the Constitution several centuries later. It is sufficient for my purposes to say merely that there is a percentage of people who find it compelling that men could not reason to these mighty principles of liberty on their own and require the intervention of a higher power to be cognizant of reasonable boundaries for ethical governance and justice.

What is curious about that line of thinking is that it fails to expound upon what precisely the form justice takes. There's a great legal debate surrounding the Constitution involving positive and negative social rights and whether the Constitution even speaks to the former at all or whether these must be established and brought into form by social institutions, or at least lower levels of government, or whether the guarantees against negative social rights (that your right to freedom or vote cannot be infringed for particular reasons for example, such as your ethnicity or religious affiliations) entrust the government with certain positive powers to expand upon those guarantees. What is interesting about a debate like that is that it easily applies to any sort of canonical document, such as a religious text. Whereby it becomes clear that a religious institution celebrates a particular variety of "negative" faith by providing a list of what not to do, and instructs a basic level of duties in the positive ledger (tithing, alms to the poor, prayer, etc), it rarely clarifies for most people the means of establishing a just world. In the absence of a clear role in positive form, one which I think you could argue can be assembled by examining the exemplars provided (although because those exemplars vary, so too would the ethics one would construe from them), it becomes a game of judgment and guilt in avoiding the negative. I suppose we benefit by having a world which most people perceive it sufficient not to rape women or to kill each other as a moral framework, and in a more advanced sense, perhaps not to cheat on committed relationships (for reasons why though, see anthropology, I don't think you will find one in religious scrolls). But even the positive duties are empty vessels for many, lacking the context and lacking the genuine concern for the welfare of others, the empathy, it is an easy move to consider some less fortunate soul to be guilty of some affront and have them slain or judged as less entitled to basic liberties and happiness. This is not, to be clear, the duty of religious peoples everywhere, but it is clearly a practice that is widespread in history. Lacking an understanding of why certain duties are "good" or certain actions are "bad", a sense of tribalism can be injected without any harm to the internal framework of someone who otherwise finds themselves as "ethical" and sees no harm in torturing people of another faith or nationality or in crusading to eradicate those other faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

So while it is perhaps to our benefit to allow people to delude themselves by establishing an infallable source of law and justice, it does not then proceed to deny those same people the duty of 1) determining its proper form (harder than it sounds, much) and 2) seeking to establish it internally (amongst like-minded people) and 3) seeking to establish it externally where appropriate or reasonable. That is, if some people want to claim that a law against murder has a religious foundation, I have no problem with that excepting that they then would be able to demonstrate rather easily that there are compelling secular reasons not to permit murder (and that they presumably don't seek to establish some religious exemption to allow themselves power of life and death but nobody else). They would then have to realize that the metaphysical justifications involved in equating abortion to murder or the far more specious constructions involving vague religious texts on homosexuals, racial characteristics, on the role of women, or prohibitions against alcohol and other recreational practices (pre-marital sex, drugs, movies/music, etc) which are not expressly forbidden even within their own theological realm, in spite of the interpretations of some "fundamentalist" religious orders, have a higher order still of reasoning needed to make them applicable to society as a whole and in some cases, even as applicable rules within their own society. Personal biases may be permissible, if repugnant, but using theological and divine inspiration to justify them should not be. This should be called out before it provides us with bad policy and injustice, as it has frequently done historically. That is a sufficient role of negative duties that religious institutions (and governments) have either lacked or practiced rather imperfectly in pursuit of a variety of supposed positive ends. When we have a society that can explain in an internally consistent way why it is beneficial not to slaughter and abuse one another, even out of desperate times perhaps exempting self-defensive measures, it may be enough to ask whether people then can practice more fully their positive duties toward one another. Typically, societies that are in relative prosperity are in this happy state of affairs where most people are contented with these negative freedoms not to be killed and abused or defrauded by others and can freely invest in their happiness and self/mutual development. I suppose therefore if people must insist that this is a divine inspiration in order to continue existing in a state of affairs such as this, I will be satisfied that they continue to support it in that limited way. I don't think that this source gives them or us a satisfactory role as the arbiter of good will and good judgments such that we would have an infallible fountain of justice however and so when such people might conflate their divine inspirations into a single document as though their divinity possesses the same logical operations, they'd better have a damn good reason to do it.

In other words, if someone wishes to expand upon what they see as "god's justice" they should be able to tell us first why that would have anything to do with "man's justice" and should be able to tell us also how they know with certainty that their source is divine anyway. I am content to have a society of people who don't do negative things to each other because they have some religious objection. I'm not sure I can find a religious justification to deny positive liberties to "other people", including depriving them of their lives and livelihoods in addition to their abilities to contribute to their own happiness (and presumably that of others as well). Perhaps I'm not looking hard enough at the textual sources. Since it seems clear that this is one of the primary uses of religious texts both historically and in modern societies (to deny things to other people), I have little confidence in the ability of (most) people to make just and fair decisions in the absence of a few basic restrictions of things they absolutely should try really really hard not to do for starters.

Put into the practical world, I don't particularly care if people enjoy or use religion responsibly anymore than I would care if people used alcohol or consumed meat (if I were a vegetarian myself for the latter point). I don't particularly care if they espouse their views as religiously based for public consumption or if they maintain these views privately. What I would ask is that they drop the assumption that simply because they have found enjoyment or balance through the application of some theological pretext that this should be a compulsory attitude for other people who either hold distinct religious views or whose views consist of the total absence and unconcern for faith-based life. And the snobbish attitude that attends to that assumption that they are the sole keepers of a moral sensibility for all peoples everywhere. They have found something which seems to work for themselves. If they want to sell others on the viability of these strategies, then by all means they should do so. At their own expense and with the freedom of others to disagree and find what they have to say disagreeable.

22 December 2009

bloggingheads again

everyone hates avatar

I haven't seen much written in favor of this being a great film with a great message anywhere... there seems to be universal approval of the technical achievements. Although in some seriousness, the "tall blue aliens" routine has been done.

And the Dances with Wolves thing has been done. If I am press-ganged into having an opinion of my own on this thing, I may have to go see it merely to confirm my low expectations. I've already seen Aliens and the Abyss several times though (which were both halfway decent movies), so I'm not sure what new message I'm getting here. One essential argument that gets cut out but made toward the end was the distinction between Aliens and Avatar. Aliens the marines are good guys who get screwed by the "company". In Avatar the marines are mercenaries who work for the company. It's pretty clear what he seems to think is supposed to be the bad guy, but it was a far better sub-textual plot in the Aliens movies than here.

Hitch wins

More amusing to my mind was seeing Hitchens debate Wright. I sit somewhere in between the two of them. Although it would help if Wright could advance an argument in nearly the same eloquence or force of reason that Hitchens does routinely. I disagreed with his specific policy suggestions for Afghanistan/Iraq, but he does advance them much more sensibly than one's typical right-wing philosophizing.

The problem Hitchens has is that there's quite a bit of dogmatic rhetoric to be deployed and it de-evolves what should be pertinent arguments about meta-ethics into routine diatribes about who has killed more people over human history. I think it would be a fair point to describe that religious organisations represent some of the very worst examples of tribalism in history, but the sort of us-them dynamics that religious leaders have exploited or advocates for some abhorrent policy have abused religious dogma is no less common to communism, nationalism, imperialism, and so on. The main distinction has been that religious indoctrination, particularly in the absence of a largely educated population, has been so much easier to create and abuse by any leader willing to do so (ie, the exercises of cynicism that are attributed strangely to Nazi Germany when they were in fact strongly religion based appeals, just as appeals against homosexuals are now or slavery was for centuries). Nationalism does not survive so much scrutiny because its beliefs are often expressed in measurable tones. Religion, by having an off-the-board source of righteousness, does not suffer this flaw. You can attempt it by using propaganda and controlling the flows of information as best as one can, but you cannot permanently sustain it in the face of military defeats or economic troubles. People, for whatever reason, are perfectly willing to suspend such reasonable objections to the flaws in their religious orthodoxy. I think that suspension still exists where people make it for their country or for some ideological fault line, but it's a lot harder to sustain on a mass scale for the centuries of time line that religious institutions have operated on.

Perhaps in several centuries people will look back upon the dogmatic operations of liberalism's assumptions (in the classical sense of the term) and find some repressive mentalities that have resulted en masse. I rather doubt it given that people have been expounding upon it positively and negatively for roughly three centuries already and it has, with no thanks to a few conservative notions and abuses of the terminology of freedom(s), gotten stronger and more developed. It's very hard to find other ideological positions which have advanced as social institutions have developed in the modern environment and proven sustainable other than the religious. For example, communism has been more or less dead as a systematic way of life for nation-states and thus had a rather short-lived flame of interest. Political parties maybe. But there again it is rare that a country orders the deaths of people who belong to some oppositional political party (at least in an actual functional liberal democracy).

The meta-ethical issue is far more interesting. It's hard to explain to people who have grown up with an insistence that ethics comes from some spiritual foundation what exactly constitutes ethics to begin with, much less to explain how people have so easily and often twisted that spiritual foundation to justify things that are commonly considered as criminal and terrible acts and continue to do so (see: any poll on torture broken down with who supports it and who opposes it). The sentiments that Wright opens with, the utilitarian assumptions of a collection of self-interested parties who must cooperate or at worst, co-exist, to create the best possible outcomes for themselves and for each other over lifetimes seems to be about the only working assumption I can safely rely upon. I find questions of consent, coercion, and compulsion to be useful to guide my thinking in governance or large scale public decisions, and to allow individuals to co-exist, but you would first have to assume that there are differences or competing interests over which they must co-exist in the first place and that the individual self-interest is a source of importance enough for consent and compulsion to be concerning topics. But explaining that and pointing out the flaws in the distilled versions of this sort of ethical mandate as provided by religious organisations (that is, that killing and raping and stealing are bad) 1) shouldn't discount that it's possible that simply giving people the general principle that killing and raping and stealing are bad has been helpful for some, perhaps many, people not to do those things (depending on how cynical you are about the properties of human beings as altruistic caring beings.. I myself am incredibly skeptical of the ability of most human beings to do much of anything helpful or cooperative at all, much less not kill and maim each other in the absence of even the most basic rules to the contrary, regardless of their source material) and 2) shouldn't excuse people who do those things, or who contort religious teaching to allow others to do them, from examining the reasons WHY those things are bad and having to try to explain themselves (and generally or usually fail to do so). These are the most basic rules of social attitude available to us to debate and if we cannot nail those down, and accept that they do make sense and will and should be commonly held even in the absence of religious faiths, it's going to be a lot harder to debate meta-ethical principles relating to objects of law like property, animal rights, environmental legislation, or economic artifacts like externalities and free-riders. That would be a discussion I'd be happy to see happening.

Copenhagen ctd

Sounds like the fallout is that the developing world will get a couple seats at the table (Russia, China, India, Brazil) and the actual poorer countries (basically most of Africa and various island nations) will get the scraps. Since that has always been the most sensible way to address the policies needed, at least from the perspective of the countries who would be required to make significant changes, the mainly industrial and developed nations, I don't understand why they even bothered with this sort of tokenism that permitted large scale frustrations to be voiced so that the few wealthy and potentially wealthy nations of the world could get together in one place and come up with some tentative agreements of their own. I suppose you could argue that the backdrop of activists and a few angry dictatorships demanding bribe money was helpful to producing some consensus on the broader points. But if they persist, as I think they should, in making what amount to backroom deals amongst the poker table friends consortium of rich pals then it becomes increasingly unlikely that the ire and anger of protesters and poorer nations will be a present and visible motivation to accomplish things. And it will be increasingly necessary to make some accommodation regardless of whether there is an accompanying external motivator. So from a purely strategic view of negotiation, it was either a not very promising sign of future deals or a not wise use of external motivation to start out with it rather than to employ it to get past later and actual deal-brokering points.

I found Chavez's speech to be particularly funny, given that his entire economy only functions because it sells oil to richer nations. At least the Saudis know they're about to be screwed and are trying to get some money for it, which I disagree with having to do (they should have spent their oil money more prudently because no single resource dollar lasts forever on which to base an entire civilization), but at least is perfectly sensible cartel behavior. Chavez is sort of odd in that way though. He doesn't seem to mind being the dog that bites the hand in his rhetoric.

also still funny

Long ago, in a planet also known as Earth

more health care craziness

10 reasons why liberals are idiots

10 reasons why progressives are smarter

Going through these, several seemed like blatant misinterpretations of the present bill. If there is an optimal reason to oppose the present legislation it is indeed because it does not go far enough on some counts (in any ideological direction you could care to come up with, from libertarian to liberal, I'm not totally sure what the conservative direction has to say but then neither are conservatives). What that does not mean is that pundits who want it to go farther should say it's bad because of x-y-z things that actually make sense and were necessary components of the bill itself (as presently designed). Put more simply, if someone wanted the bill to be a stronger move for a single-payer system, placing more of the burden on taxpayers rather than the poor/middle-class say, then they should simply argue for that. That "that" was never on the table, and is most probably politically impossible in America for a number of reasons (generally weak public support for single-payer systems among them), should also be acknowledged. My support for a system that would resemble Wyden-Bennett or Singapore was thrown out of the possibilities almost immediately, so I can sympathize with the single payer folks who got it through their heads quicker that they were out in the wilderness. That neither objective was in play told me the system we would end up with would be a very weak "reform" at best. That does not give me a reason to defeat legislation that incorporates a few of those views (namely taxing high end health insurance plans and creating public risk pool exchanges). Assuming that it would improve upon the status quo which I think it does in some core areas like access to health care markets. I'm less sure if it does on balance because the cost curve issue in the long term is the most pressing reason to reform health care in my opinion. Following the Massachusetts model doesn't seem like the best way to keep that cost containment in place, particularly if they throw out HSAs, which Massachusetts did not do.

So going down the line of specific complaints, the only legitimate, factual ones seem to take on the form of complaining about the mandate (or indirectly, the level of subsidies) and putative restrictions on abortion accessibility. I'll deal with these in a second. The problems of "coverage they cannot afford/use" are more or less idiotic displays that ignore that millions of people who have coverage already cannot use it and millions more cannot afford it at all (or are rejected because of sometimes reasonable medical concerns and sometimes more asinine grounds). Likewise, the complaint about taxing insurance benefits as provided by employers, especially because of the limited nature of those taxes is completely stupid. It was, in my opinion, one of the strongest liberal arguments about taxation and distributive wealth FOR taxing employer benefits, particularly above some "absurd" figure because the primary beneficiaries of such benefits are not middle class "working" people but their CEOs who can then receive not only access to higher quality medical care but can do with tax shelters for the income that they would use to pay for it themselves. I have no complaint if wealthy people wish to have access to the best quality care. But they should at least have to pay for it instead of receiving a tax break for it. So I don't get why liberals would complain about that point at all.

I happen to think individual mandates on this point are better than nothing. We have them at the state level for types of property insurance. They don't reliably work to reduce problems with free-riders (millions of people still go uninsured at a rate roughly similar to that of health insurance already), but they do change the market toward one which offers lower costs to people who participate in it. People who cannot obtain insurance are, in the case of cars, probably people who we don't want driving anyway, but there are many people who wouldn't participate who are perfectly decent drivers and who thus lower costs for people who are slightly less perfect who we would want in that market. The same applies to health insurance. I disagree strongly with some of the mandates which make the market for individual insurance far less beneficial for young individuals like myself, but conceptually I think the argument that (young) people are imposing a cost on others when they free-ride and do not carry health coverage is a strong one in favor of a mandate. It also makes no sense to argue philosophically about the reforms on the table and complain that older people can be charged more for health insurance. I'm positive if I were an insurance agent, I would want older people to be charged more myself because they're far more likely to actually make claims. If you want younger people to buy in politically, you're going to have get old people to share the costs. The fact that "conservatives" have framed the various amendments that make medicare cuts or which may require additional burdens on modestly wealthy older folks doesn't make much sense to me from the ideological framework of "conservatism" but it does make it feel odd when liberals share those concerns now. In order to make this argument you have to overlook that currently, it costs old people even more than 300% more than everybody else, and it costs women a lot more as well. And neither would be the case under the Senate bill. I am not totally convinced that either is a necessary outcome of a market situation, but I would agree that the present case is both unsustainable economically (because we have so many seniors about to enter public subsidized care) and doesn't pass a sort of moral fairness sniff test (because much of women having additional costs constraints is because of gender specific costs that sometimes should be shared by men, ie, pregnancy and it still often doesn't cover other costs which are directly imposed by men, ie, domestic abuse/rape non-emergency and secondary treatment costs).

Supposedly the opposition to mandates is that people couldn't afford it. I think this is an argument, if one is a liberal, for stronger state subsidies or, if one is a libertarian, for (much) stronger cost containment which could bring down costs, but it doesn't by itself make a reliable case against mandates for purchasing insurance. So far it's the only one surfacing (other than some bizarre assumption that it would/could be deemed unconstitutional which while ideologically consistent, is even kookier than the assumption that people couldn't afford it). I have more of a bone to pick with the precise form of what constitutes "insurance" than what constitutes a civic duty on this point. Judging from the form these mandates have taken over the years, it would appear liberals do as well. Though naturally enough it appears they don't understand "insurance" as a financial instrument that exists to protect against individual catastrophe rather than as a pre-payment plan with "insurance" written on the title. Despite that ideological fault line, I see it as a considerable problem to go around complaining about "insurance people cannot use" and then ignore the fact that many people already have insurance they cannot use because it does not provide enough coverage, doesn't cover specific things, and does cover silly things instead (as mandated by the state legislatures or regulatory boards). The one obvious thing this bill does do is expand access to otherwise decent "insurance" that people could actually use to pay for their necessary medical care. Unless they're looking at a completely different bill, that particular complain is nonsense.

That leaves the elephant of abortion in the room. There are several points to be examined here. First, federal funding already doesn't cover abortions (save those which are deemed medically necessary) because of the Hyde Amendment over 30 years ago. If you wanted to overturn that, be my guest (I don't think it's politically possible because of the strange bargains necessitated by a federal republic form of governance). So if you were poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, you aren't losing anything from this restriction anyway. And that is the precise group of people I'd be most concerned about having increased access to elective abortions because there is already a decreased means to support children on a limited income supported by state assistance funds as well as the one group of people who were never going to be receiving assistance anyway as they weren't insured by employers or by private insurance. Two, the Senate bill is far less restrictive than Stupak was in the House, giving states opt-in/opt-out clauses (it's still a restriction I could live without personally, for the record). Three, a stronger case should have been made months ago with the stimulus package provision subsidizing birth control for people on unemployment/state assistance. That would have made the staunch opposition to abortion limitations from these bills seem at least ideologically consistent and fair-minded (where the sponsorship and support of these limitations, in addition to the ridiculous media opposition to the birth control subsidies, does not seem fair-minded and sensible at all). Four, abortion is still divisive enough that a few influential votes in Congress needed to pass something modestly related to a woman's health, as determined by a body mostly composed of men, are sufficient to block expanding access to middle-class and lower-middle class women and to continuing blocking access to poorer women. Five, stronger opposition to state rollbacks of access, such as parental consent laws, zoning regulations, any other tricks in the book to force closures of abortion clinics and access to other forms of birth control more generally are far more likely to expand access than federal subsidies are. There are already substantial portions of the country where abortion may be legal, but it doesn't exist legally. Federal subsidies may give people an ability to pay for the abortion itself when they wouldn't have been able to, but they're not going to give most women or families an ability to travel across state lines or from some rural part of a western state into the nearest major city in order to seek that out.

The one substantive objection which I (and Ezra) agreed with was the objections to the "Big Pharma" compromises, both the continued absurd protectionism and the continued monopolies over developed end products. I have some misgivings in relation to removing the re-importation system simply because many drugs in other countries are heavily state-subsidized (or directly price controlled), but I don't share the official state misgivings of "they are not safe" or that it would require more regulatory work or whatever else is our supposed problem and even accounting for state subsidies, say by enacting a reasonable tariff to pay for them, the market imbalance we have would be greatly improved by introducing some competition. Besides which, if we're going to grant these exclusive monopolies to drug companies as well as offer them the benefits of state-sponsored research grants and other corporate welfare methods, it doesn't seem fair (in a market sense) for drug companies here to turn around and complain about foreign competition doing more or less the same thing.

One other final note, there's a lot of push back that this bill is a giveaway to insurance companies and other medical providers. I think of the two, medical providers won a lot more than insurance. This was never a bill which seriously complained about medical care costs themselves or sought to address their rising costs. It was always a bill about expanding access to insurance so more people could pay for medical care with somebody else's money (which is what a risk pool of insurance is). The demonization of greedy insurance companies has been amusing, but it isn't at all a real world examination of why we have such expensive health care. People are, I suppose, right to complain that they're getting a large and captive market in which to "compete", with a few stipulations about how they can compete. But really most of that complaint ought to be directed at monopoly hospitals and government prices as dictated through medicare/medicaid warping the marketplace into some horrid abomination. Health insurance has never seemed to me like a particularly profitable industry and of course, it isn't (3% is a razor thin profit margin, basically if you are running a corner gas station you're worse off but that's about it). At least not in comparison to something like automobiles, oil, banking, or farming. All industries which have historically received far more state support or state manipulation to protect market shares rather than protect markets. If people want to complain about health insurers getting all these profits, they should get in line when there are other corporatist measures. And they definitely shouldn't be so quick to assume that it is the insurance companies that are driving the price increases rather than merely being beneficiaries of price increases caused by something else, such as increased market control by providers, medical licensing, distortions in specific medical field availability caused by price controls, and non-transparency in health care prices AND for the costs of insurance itself. There's plenty of blame here to go around and if consumers (patients) aren't willing to eat the sandwich they're making, I don't know what to tell them.

Put some more mustard on it (require more value in QALYs) or make a different sandwich next time (vote in new people) would be all I could advise.

As a side note, I personally still oppose the current bill and more or less the entire framing of this as "reform". But I'm finding people on the opposite end(s) of the ideological spectrum from me to have far less sensible objections and to sound suspiciously like the Republicans they are stubbornly and partisan-ly opposed by rather than raising major economic or even ideological complaints about both the processes used to devise the plans and the end product, which is annoying enough to both follow as a news item and to vent the annoyance in blog form.

20 December 2009

good times roll

"Don't bring a gun to a snowball fight". There's a surprising number of cameras involved here (supposedly it was an organized protest). But the pulling a gun and throwing a fit over a hummer being hit by a snowball seems a bit like overkill, especially if one is a cop.

Updated: He's been sentenced to desk duty. Woe to any co-officers and bureaucrats who throw a paper airplane in his sight line.

19 December 2009

since it is december after all

I note a few points about the events. Bah-humbug while I'm at it.

1) Best part of Christmas holiday season: people watching. There is little clear species delineation going on visible from observing who goes where and when. Though I suppose there's still a visible contempt that can be gained from observing a Wal-Mart for a few hours (in particular if they're going to be playing a marathon of country music versions of Christmas "music"). Still, it's not every day that random strangers will help somebody loading something large and unwieldy into a truck or back of a minivan (and yes, I was a "random stranger" loading something. I think this is amusing).

2) Worst part: The muzak. Even the fact that it involves shopping and parking seems trivial by comparison. The constant supply of podcasts and random shuffles of a large music collection mean that I never have to hear Christmas music unless by choice. This means of course that "by choice" is somewhere between never and almost never and it almost has to be something classical (possibly jazz-related is acceptable, but only older jazz related and there again I'd rather hear Louis Armstrong and Nat Cole singing about something else or at best something only tangentially related to Christmas). This is not what is playing at shopping venues, etc. I am not sure it can be reliably referred to as musical.

I would be hard pressed to identify another major Western holiday which has its own music. Maybe the Super Bowl in its way (by having a halftime show) and there's a few popular New Year's songs but they often tie into Christmas anyway. I think this is a rather large marketing "problem" with Christmas in other words. If it had music associated with it which was worth hearing, it would be played at any time throughout the year. Instead it becomes an excuse to capitalize on sentiments and produce crap because it will be force fed for a month or two. I could not imagine going through Halloween for a month ahead of time (as we already do with legions of decorations and candy sales) while listening to a month of bad music. Why do we put up with this for Christmas?

3) Shopping needs to be more or less an outsource-able task (that is: real shopping involving wandering around brick and mortar physical buildings. It takes seconds to find things using the magic of Google/Amazon, etc). The fact that it pertains to getting some token of respect as a gift is one feature that cannot be easily sold off to some functionary performance, which is in its favor. The fact that this token is usually some tangible material object is rather silly however once you come down to it. It's basically a religious feast holiday. I don't mind the food and event planning or the days off that are granted (regardless of religious affiliation, I know of few people who will complain if given days off with no other justification required). I don't mind asking for stuff if I were in need (or a child, who is basically "in need"). I don't mind seeking stuff out if people ask for it (and give me some reliable clues as to what sorts of stuff they have want/need of, since it is virtually a given that I will not know someone well enough to deduce this for myself). But is stuff really that important to fashion an entire month (plus) holiday season around it?

here's something good we can use government for

Government v government

I don't always read my cato feeds, but this was a good idea from over the summer. It escapes people how much they are supporting farming and particular agricultural industries. Since there are certainly plenty of people willing to pay extra for those meaningless fair trade or organic farming or a host of other labels, I would imagine there's a market of people who would see these and exercise some market discipline, in particular on the tariff goods.

The downside to this idea is made clear from a simple factor: I live in Ohio. A state which just voted for a Constitutional amendment which effectively established a farm prices board. Meaning that there are plenty of people who are too dumb to realize that "farmers" is a nomenclature that generally means "corporations" in the modern American farming world and all they're really supporting is more corporate welfare. If farm price supports actually helped farmers as it appears voters think they do, then it's doubtful that a sign indicating that a product is price supported by government is going to have much of an impact on market reactions.

18 December 2009

Or as Carlin would say

the best way to get out of jury duty is to tell the truth

If you think for a moment I wouldn't be that sort of frustrating for a jury pool....

It does call to question why exactly they have the random jury notices though if they're just going to throw people out who have honest and sensible objections that are not prejudicial biases toward a particular type of person (read: racists) and more are objections to procedural artifacts like who does or does not testify in a case or particular lines of questioning that go ignored, etc.

Why not simply ignore virtually any academic/lawyer-ly type in the future if they will remove people who have "thoughts" anyway? And if that's the case, how will that be "a jury of our peers". It sounds more like a jury of whoever will be easier to push around.

The first comment there, to use the plural of anecdote, points out a more pressing problem than a defense attorney trying to protect a client from belligerent questioning or prejudicial lines of evidence: prosecuting attorneys dismissing people from juries because they have "thoughts" that include the loopholes in our present legal system. Because as we all know, refusing a breathalyzer clearly means you did something wrong and must be drunk. I will probably have a post on drunk driving dissuasion in a bit once I think on it some more, but needless to say, random and non-random gathering of evidence which does not coincide with constitutional protections of privacy and based in part on police arrest quotas is not all that productive given that we can estimate that the DUI problem as a classic Pareto system.

The dark side of the Pixar empire

Up equals Gran Turino?

That would probably be funnier if I had seen Up as well.

The editing is a bit choppy on occasion and I'm not sure I found the talking dogs as a comparable character to his neighbours (and the gang). But if Pixar was making darker, grittier fare more so than it already "does" (at least by comparison to Disney), I might be more inclined to see an occasional animated movie. Other than Incredibles, I haven't been so inclined (I've seen most of Pixar's works, or at least those works prior to 2004 or so, at some point in various ways, but I wasn't inclined to seeing them prior to doing so was my point here). It does bring to surface the fact that Pixar seems to be engaged in making movies for adults that are cartoons such that kids will drag them there. Which is probably the most secretly effective marketing angle I can think of for a movie production company.

bernanke who?

IMF rules and how they would describe the US scenario of last year

If I had to pick somebody who "ought to be" as influential as Bernanke has been over the past year over monetary policy and regulations therein, it'd be Johnson. It's not so much that I agree completely with him (I'm more in leaning toward a negative interest rate scenario, or at least a penalty on reserves, to deal with deflationary pressures than a direct bailout of major insolvent banks and compulsory bailout of major banks generally, for example the case of Chase-Morgan as compared to the AIG-Goldman-Citi triumvirate of woe and pity), but I certainly find some coherence in his ideas that I do not find in the government's responses.

I have yet to figure out why the banking bailout system was simply a massive transfer to a few specific banks rather than a general loosing of the monetary spigot instead. But even worse, it shouldn't have been too hard to make these loans with an appropriate level of supervision and requirements as to their use. When we go to get money from a bank, they ask all kinds of questions for good reasons. It would seem appropriate that we make the same requirements if loans are to be made to banks themselves.

The public furor over the payment of bonuses and assorted PR debacles of the banking industry I think is woefully misplaced, but it does raise the sensible question of why exactly was this money given to them in the first place if they can afford to pay such things. One should think that an unsuccessful company would not be in a position of these payments to employees (who would then depart for a company that will pay them what they are owed or worth). In other words, once we took such a large stake in these companies, the payment of bonuses was the least of our concerns because it would insure that there will be at least a cadre of quality employees who are well-incentivized to their jobs. What we "ought to" have asked is well-incentivized to do what?

other musical thoughts

I am amused that I just now noticed that Apple uses a price discrimination model for those songs which are supposedly popular and charges $0.30 more. I'd long been aware that some older productions you could get for much less (by buying the entire CD), but the price premium I'd managed to ignore and avoid even though it appears they started it back in April.

17 December 2009

colbert lyrics

"I love New York/ King of all the cities/ Lived up by the Guggenheim till I got some kiddies/ Moved to Connecticut, bye George Pataki

Shoppin' mall is close, my community is gated/ My shorties are all private-school educated/ Home theater system, 60-inch plasma

Clean suburban air, much better for my asthma/ Still hit the city, Times Square, keep it real/ Hard Rock Cafe for the appetizer deal/ M&M Store, Disney Store, I'm in heaven/ I own this town from 41st to 47/ Take you to 'The Lion King,' that show is fantastic/ Leave half an hour early so I can beat the traffic/ I can get home really fast, driver rocks an E-Z Pass/ Land of cheaper gas and the upper middle class"

In addition to thinking the Alicia Keys version is better than the Jay-Z version (with Keys singing the hook), I have decided on reflection Nas's version (NY State of Mind, not Empire) is also better. It's still probably one of the few recent popular songs I can deal with as being popular in spite of these flaws.

still true

"There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited." - Sun Tzu

Around the world in 365 II

part i

5) Civilian surge? I must have missed that anyone took that idea seriously. Let's just move on.

6) Brazil and China. The fact of China's marching around making deals with Latin America and parts of Africa isn't really news (at least if you've been paying attention). The fact that Brazil had an aircraft carrier however escaped my attention. Checking further, it's really an old French one. It is true "a" Chinese aircraft carrier wouldn't amount to very much (the US has 11 with at least one more on the way). A fleet of Chinese aircraft carriers, combined with hordes of cruise missiles and a rather large and reasonably advanced air force might start to make the "two Chinas" policy look a bit unproductive in short order however. We're not there yet. India upgrading one of their two carriers is likely to be a useful counterweight here as well.

7) Even with all this security, we don't have any security. Which isn't surprising. We have the dumbest sort of security imaginable: visible systems. And to make it worse, we have paired that with unaccountable methods that may or may not be systemic. A passport with some sort of biometric scanner isn't really my idea of a necessity to prevent intrusions and attacks, but would it have been really that hard to do the actual background work necessary to issue them (and if it wasn't that hard, why did we need the biometric scans in the first place?)

8) Russia is still Russia and power is still power. Should surprise no one that journalists and critics of Russia/Russian-backed governments aren't safe. That's been going on for a long while since the flailing attempts to institute a free press within a democratic system (something we've not managed to accomplish in our ill-fated attempts at conquest in the Middle East).

9) Not content to merely inform Ugandan (and Rwandan) politics, we're also back in business funding militant regimes against erstwhile terrorist organs in Central Africa. This, along with the on-going saga of the pirates in Somalia, is a unregarded front against international terrorism (which is only natural for American politics and news given that genocidal rates of death in Africa barely move the media's attention levels to a whisper and that leaves low intensity warfare with some mass murder on the side to be totally ignored). I will admit that it might be sensible for us to go in and remove violent groups of opposition, in particular charismatic or terrifying leaders of such groups, and this may be true even if those leaders do not pose immediate or direct national security interests. The question for me is less who needs killing and more how much should we invest in getting our hands bloody to do it. And I'm not simply talking about the cost in money or even the lives of our soldiers. That attack cost almost 1000 civilians their lives in retaliation. Which seems about like the rates of death in occupied Iraq already for our troops versus civilian casualties. If we do have to go around grabbing up or killing people, I'd like to have some idea that the execution of that strategy will actually save some lives at some point down the line (if not immediately).

10) 13% of the CIA is smart enough to work at the CIA. Uhm, why exactly do we have people who work in the intelligence community who don't have any understanding of other cultures, even most basically as to speak their language? That percentage is so low that I actually have trouble believing it to be accurate. It may be true that the demand for Farsi and Arabic and Pashto are new. I didn't know that we just recently started considering the Chinese or the Russians as people worth keeping an eye on. Or even our allies in Europe, Korea, Japan, Israel, etc. Not everybody around the world speaks English. About the only major language I'd be questionable about needing for espionage purposes is Spanish, and this is largely because most of our policy problems with Latin American countries are more like police enforcement issues rather than geopolitical ones. Even Cuba and Venezuela are pretty easy to marginalize if someone wanted to take the time and effort to do it and if the espionage resources are focused on their allies in Iran or Russia or China instead.

16 December 2009

Copenhagen Discord

I am rather amused at the notion that the meeting of a bunch of Very Important People matters firstly and secondly that anyone actually believed something substantive could be accomplished by it. It's possible that had the US Senate worked out something like a climate bill, however horribly monstrous those bills have become (for all the economic feathers ruffling over cap and trade versus carbon taxes the current bills in Congress don't even resemble cap and trade in the first place), that this meeting would have some clarity of purpose. I doubt very much it would have improved the productivity of it however.

I suppose the good news is that's it is becoming more likely that some nations will start looking more seriously at geo-engineering research the longer it takes for international arrangements to crystallize around an actual policy on carbon. To say nothing of making that arrangement stick and making it meaningful in a climate science.

around the world in 365 days

And the things you will see

Even I missed a couple of these.

1) Melting Ice. Saw this come up. Even Colbert covered the hubbub over the coming war to claim stuff under the ice. Still, in the flurry of speculation over melting ice means for everything from climate legislation and global warming to migration patterns and polar bear populations, I would imagine not many people thought of the fact that it has the potential to change global trade routes and cause some jockeying over present territorial claims to resources. But since it did involve the two superpowers of the 20th century, it's pretty hard to say that the prospect of what this means for foreign policy in a measure of great power strength flew through unnoticed. It just wasn't really covered in relation to what those great powers should be doing with that strength in order to prevent it. With the implicit assumption that they should care enough to do so. If I'm looking at this right, neither the US or Russia has a really compelling reason to be concerned about melting ice if that's all the problem is (naturally the cause of melting ice may be more regarded as disconcerting than the actual fact of it).

2) Iraq v Iraq/Kurds. Old story in a way. I suppose the lack of present violence, the lack of an obvious Bush cronyism over oil, and the pressing importance of events in Iran and Afghanistan has knocked Iraq back to page 10 news, if at all. But I've noticed a steady stream of "bomb kills 10, bomb kills 30" stories. They're just not killing Americans very often so we rarely pay attention. The problem with this being a non-issue for us is that it should very well mean something regarding our present strategy in Afghanistan. Namely, that it confuses our military mission to be one of "pacification" rather than "pursuit of international terrorists", and it then diagnoses the level of pacification as one where there is a diminished level of actual violence without really acknowledging the potential causes of violence. Afghanistan the sectarian/tribalism situation is even more obvious than in Iraq, where there are 3 main groups and to which the lack of social and legal integration between those groups in spite of relative peacefulness should give us a hint as to how well the "surge" strategy works. It does work in regards not having many deaths. It would work if our options including long-term occupation or state-sponsorship with large scale public works (on a Marshall Plan scale). Since that's not our declared and supported agenda, it fails miserably to achieve something in a quick enough time frame to merit supporting it. It is possible that a strategy like this might have made Afghanistan a better place by now had it been implemented after we essentially conquered the place with special operations and air power. Except that wasn't our goal when we conquered the place so it wasn't implemented. Retroactively applying it isn't all that great an idea because it now simply fuels opposition and resentment and creates "terrorism" that doesn't so much object to American imperialism in the Bin Laden critical way but objects to a "foreign presence" in the same way that we might object if a hypothetical army arrived and started wandering around occasionally dropping bombs on us. That's not all we do there yes, but that's more or less how we are perceived and unless we were able to change those perceptions immediately, we are not really going to succeed in changing them later on after many thousands of people have died reinforcing them.

3) Not sure how big a deal this is. I did know they've had conflicts before over Tibet. I don't think either country is all that interested in fighting the other. China has us, Russia, Pakistan, Taiwan, and the mess in Korea/Japan all as regional issues. India has Pakistan and Afghanistan, plus China. Both countries have much more focus on stable economic growth than wartime footings. But the level of sabre rattling over these mountainous regions in Central Asia, along with the continued shellings and squabbles over Kashmir, does mean that some precautionary steps between the nuclear powers involved are prudent. Given the recalcitrance with which Israeli settlements will be stopped as a matter of politics (as in, there isn't enough backbone in our government to tie our weapons and aid to following some of our rules or advice by the Israeli government), it might be sensible for us to decide to try to help resolve these impossible territorial disputes instead. I'd certainly say a Nobel Peace Prize is warranted if somebody negotiated a reasonable and potentially lasting settlement over either. Maybe even if the person doing so was also engaged in two escalated wars elsewhere (in part because the Kashmir question in particular would help us scale back in Afghanistan with fewer risks and costs to our own security, though those risks and costs are to my thinking already extremely low).

4) Housing bubble 2.0. I'm not sure I agree with the sentiments that housing speculation killed the radio star here, but whatever green shoots we're seeing in the housing sector did seem like they're premature and silly. I still think that the areas that saw the greatest increases/declines are above the trend line of growth for that sector, which means they'll probably have room yet to shrink. The downside effect is what that does to actual home values in more sustainable areas as people losing their shirts on mortgages that went from bad to worse, and some which went from decent to disaster, cannot move out to escape the maelstrom.

15 December 2009


Been playing Dragon Age enough to have a few opinions. There will be spoilers if by some chance, people who wanted to play it and haven't pop by.

1) Morrigan is probably the single coolest video game character I've seen. If it were possible to interact more with Andrew Ryan in BioShock, he might win this competition. But his entrance as a talking head looking gangster-ish through a broken TV screen does not compare to a witch-like causal stroll of a mage staring you down as a lesser mortal. So he loses. She's anti-social (she hates townspeople, anything in the game having to do with religion, children, and your dog) and almost completely self-confident and totally aware of it. In your camp, she's the only one off by herself, which is a pretty clear signal to be "left alone". Pretty much every situation where in the game you can "help" someone, she gets pissed if you do it. Thus far she has been pleased with the following types of events: condemning dwarfs to be enslaved as stone golems, allowing a merchant to "price gouge" refugees, saving an illegal blood mage from death, allowing a tower of mages to be overrun and slaughtered by templars, etc. To top that off, she requests that you kill her mother (when she finds out her mother will try to kill her at some later point, but it's not like it comes out of the blue though). She got annoyed when I saved a village of innocent civilians from a horde of undead that sort of thing. Ryan has the line where he burns a forest he owns to the ground when the people wanted to turn it into a national park. So I can see where this sort of attitude is coming from.

It's not so much that these are necessarily great people and role models in most ways, but they're far more thought-out allies or plot devices than the other "good" characters often are. By simply playing the game in a "people get what they deserve" attitude, you would imagine you could get along great with either character. And you naturally annoy people who believe there's more to justice than that. Like that noble idea that innocents should be protected from harm (another mage got really annoyed when I killed the "wrong" dwarf with the assumption being that dwarfs would again be forced to be enslaved rather than volunteer to be turned into magical monsters as they once did, and the main male NPC got extremely pissed when I let a woman sacrifice herself to save her son from a demon). One consequence of this seems to be that it's really hard to keep everyone you could recruit as allies happy. A couple seem genuinely evil. Morrigan is only anti-social in my opinion, she does not (usually) wish for people to be harmed, but if it is "getting what's coming to them", she's not lifting a finger to stop it either. Sten seems more or less evil. Considering you recruit him by saving him from execution for a senseless murder of an entire family, this isn't terribly surprising.

2) This sort of dark cynical world also carries over into the non-allied characters you can interact with. When you save a town from a bunch of predatory bandits killing or robbing refugees outside of it, some of the townsfolk are annoyed because they're being overrun by those same "worthless" refugees. Almost every major authority figure in the game is only concerned with one thing: power. They willingly allow people who they have nominally supported to be killed because it advances or secures their own position. Very Machiavellian. At the same time some of the dialogues you can have with the "good" storyline folks demonstrate theories on responsibilities of power and the consequential duty to use that power to protect or help others. Considering that there are no examples of this in the game (even the Wardens are basically a secretive cult that doesn't seem too concerned when people have to die to advance their essential cause), it's hard to see where they got the notion however. I haven't played as an elf yet, but one of the introductory story arcs is basically the beginning part of Braveheart. Some human noble comes by to claim his right to sleep with your new bride, you kill him. It's not a pretty world.

3) Game wasn't too hard on hard. Morrigan, in addition to being an interesting character is probably the most crucial addition to the team. It's like playing as Rome in Civilization 4; she's like a full difficulty level adjustment down. She does require in my opinion the most micromanagement to get the most out of the spells though. The other mage you can get, Wynne, can handle healing by scripting it on autopilot and the one good kill spell combo she has, petrify/shatter, available can also be scripted easily enough. Hardest part was early on, pre-Morrigan, fighting a boss ogre where I died about a dozen times before figuring it out. Later engagements get progressively easier. A few longer quests are reasonably hard but manageable if there aren't running battles with dozens of enemies over a wide area. Those sorts of fights will drain out all your abilities and you'll be left using regular attacks more often. Which sucks. There's a fair amount of dying if you're not careful but it's also not essential for every battle that every character "survive" the battle throughout either. As long as one of you makes it, the dead just get back up with some injury penalties to their stats and abilities. It's mostly like a combination of an RPG and an RTS in most battles, sort of like playing Warcraft 3 with just heroes as your army rather than random units. The "perpetual gore" feature also wasn't well thought out. It's good for combat to give you an idea of just how messy things are getting and some of the killing blows are visually impressive, Alistair leaping up on falling ogres and repeatedly stabbing their chests for example, but it does get extremely silly if you then have a conversation right after a battle. A mop would be necessary. The game was rather unstable at first. I had two hard crashes where the computer completely shut down (heat related I assume). But once I patched my video card, parts of the game (usually the ability to loot corpses and quest updates) simply start to run slower after a while instead of crashing the system. I find this an agreeable arrangement, since with Fallout 3 I was getting a fair amount of CTD appearances for the same sort of game. Borderlands was more stable than both.

4) For whatever the controversy was over the ability to have homosexual relationships, aside from the usual RPG tendencies to use specific body types for humans (both male and female) as heroes, it's extremely tame on the "sexual". Fallout 2 had the same prostitution angles as this game did (almost 15 years ago) and only marginally less graphically. That is, sex is in this game only a representation that there is sex going on or about to be going on, it's not pornographic, and Fallout had a casino bell ringing as the screen faded out and returned to normal instead of a brief cutscene of characters in their underwear. I should also note from what I've seen online that Morrigan is arguably more clothed in the game's sex scene for her than in the rest of the game (at least on top). And as far as actual nudity, there are a few basically topless purple demons. Woo-hoo.

If this was supposed to be controversial, I'd say some of the decisions that the game gives you to do as options or which others have done previously which you are correcting (or helping) that amount to slavery (city elves) or genocide (the mage and werewolf story arcs) are far more troublesome than anything sexually related in the game. It's already rated M, and given that an M rating for a video game is supposed to be like an R rating, you'll see a lot "worse" in a movie theatre as far as nudity and sex are concerned. The only difference is that it is not as interactive a storyline. But here again, "sex" is a cutscene. The interactive part would be how you ended up there I guess, but it's generally over a long period of time. The supposedly offensive gay scene(s, there's both gay and lesbian relationships, plus at least one other non-party related character who may be persuaded to join you in the back room of the brothel) would have to be something you would positively chosen to pursue. Considering there is actual pornography which is far more accessible online than an interactive RPG game with the main focus being killing things and doing quests, I'm not that concerned. GTA's "coffee" that you had to unlock manually apparently shocked some consciences as well, though since it wasn't gay males obviously fewer than this. The lesbian angle in the game is pretty much at this point an accepted norm, which I guess is progress of a sort. Really the puritanical attitudes toward sexuality in our society need to do some serious explaining for me to take such shock and scandal as this at face value. You as the player would have to choose to pursue this as an optional aspect and it's in a rated game already with the idea that it will have particularly adult themes in it which ought to be more offensive than sex to our sensitive sensibilities (ie, mass slaughter and the complex and cynical political maneuvers which then result in mass slaughter and war). Get over it says I.

education means what?


Awesome. Particularly applies to history (and to a lesser extent, the selection of literature for English). I think the one saving hallmark of the "debate" over evolution is that it brings this problem to the surface for discussion by requiring us to defend what we decide to teach children in public curriculum. Having to make the case for doing so is naturally more absurd in a more truly scientific discipline like biology than for history or political science, but it is in fact no less important to do.

In that case because it might allow us to use the Darwinian theory to expound upon the scientific method more fully and thus hopefully garner more support for its modus operandi of rational empiricism in other areas, like say economics or politics. Those methods tend to require people to adopt a stance of a skeptical moderate observer trying to piece things together rather than arriving at pre-defined positions of authority and abusing supporting "evidence" as a result, for example by contorting religious scripture to support particular political agendas of bigotry or intolerance (positions which I, as a fairly neutral observer of religious institutions, would struggle to find in those canonical works).

We could then argue whether it is a desirable effect to create a skeptical population (it does not appear to be held as such by people running public schools institutionally). My own impression is that a school choice situation would allow those people who do not want skeptical children to send their children to factories of conformity to attempt to compress it out of them (and perhaps succeed or fail depending on the relative intellectual curiosity of the student). Strangely, in this country at least, school choice advocates outside of the libertarian economics branch of them tend to be more advocating a stronger sense of social conformity generally as what is lacking in public schools already. I think they're missing the point of using governments to run schools rather than simply using public monies to fund schools. It is precisely designed to create conformity when it is designed in the present manner. The issue seems to be that it is a brand of conformity they are less comfortable with personally, for whatever reason, rather than resistance to conformity out of an enlightened interest for diverse intellectual opinions.

14 December 2009

Surprise me

Opinions of philosophy on philosophy

The most surprising result to me was #3. I understand the concept of objective aesthetics, but I reject it completely as something created by subjective cultural environments that then vary and in rare instances as something formed by evolutionary responses. I'm somewhat less surprised in the idea of a moral realism claim relative to an idea that there are somehow objective standards on "taste", as it were. My own postulation indicates that these subjective standards are what give us form to something like a moral objectivity. That there is an objectively best case result isn't really a problem for me, but it does mean that "objectively best case" varies based on minor variations in circumstances and (aesthetic) preferences within the situation being resolved and thus only appears to normalize around a common set of ethics because those common set of interests are generally shared within cultures and living beings. Survival for instance is a rather strong motivator but rarely must be appealed to in modern societies.

Put another way, I think I could conceive that there is an objective definition of what beauty "is", but that the examples or recognition of it in actuality will vary enormously because of other factors and factors involved in perception itself. That means there isn't an objective standard, a "Helen of Troy", in reality. Only if we assume a Platonic formalism to our comparisons of taste and only there would it exist. Given that I'm not thoroughly swayed by Platonic forms to begin with, this is naturally an unconvincing arrangement for me.

The continued appeal of Platonism is surprising also relative to nominalism. I'm finding neuroscience to be reasonably convincing that we're just making that stuff up and that it does not in fact consistent of apprehension of external forms in which to place knowledge into predetermined boxes (outside of mathematical formula).

I shouldn't have to point out the high and consistent "atheism" result. I had sometime ago heard the line that philosophy was the "theology" major of atheists. While it characterizes the data well, it's not historically useful to make that assumption. Philosophy traditionally explored the existence of god or the form of deities before metaphysics became more or less a dead science. Suffices to say that considering both rationalism and empiricism tends to put a damper on belief systems rather quickly.

I suppose also the leanings of libertarianism being so low are interesting. But in that case, not totally surprising (it's not really that popular outside of liberal arts fields either relative to leanings toward egalitarianism or even communitarianism. Really it seems to be a field of thought dominated by people studying economics and not "dominating" economics itself either). If pressed, I'd have to say egalitarianism has some very strong appeals, but that libertarianism allows for it by assuming that at least political and legal equalities are regarded by the general public as important commodities worth protecting and further recognizing that equalities of opportunity can be beneficial to most people and thus creating systems organically to provide it (rather than to use government systems to enforce it). Subsequent imbalances are inevitable owing to variations of skills and current or expected future demand for those skills. The combination of both is far stronger than either is independently, but if you have to take only one or the other, I'm leaning on individuals rather than social systems.

12 December 2009

forgotten era

All the way back in September, there was this kid with a video camera and goofy looking coat. And he became relatively famous for going around creating these videos implicating ACORN advisors in various forms of fraud or illegal activities. What was generally not shown were instances where he was told to take a hike (nor was this ever made clear to the American public how often this happened), or how often he was told what he wanted to know and then reported to the police (which happened at least twice that I know of). What resulted was a Congressional law designed to block the federal funding of ACORN on the basis that it was engaged in unlawful or fraudulent acts while receiving public monies.

Now I can certainly raise the case that the types of activities ACORN engages in don't always seem like things that I'd prefer to be funded through public taxation, but that would be an argument on the merits of the organisation itself rather than the behavior of its workers or even casting a doubt and blame on institutional-level corruption of the sort which might be deemed necessary to cut funding. Indeed, what was also not shown to the public was that ACORN responded in damage control mode by firing people and investigating with outside legal counsel for institutional fraud, precisely the measures taken by other similar, but far larger agents contracted by the federal government using public monies and actually investigated and charged (and fined or penalized) for committing illegal acts of fraud and abuse. That is, namely and usually, military defence contractors. Conveniently, when this fact is brought to the attention of people who already oppose ACORN, while supporting a complex marriage between foreign policy and military defence contracts, the necessities of war trumps the necessities of the poor.

I must admit I suffer from no such apprehensions.

This is largely because I find that it is more appropriate to penalize individuals who misbehave rather than institutions, holding the institution responsible for a portion of the monetary loss of fraud (because they employed some scumbag and deserve some penalty for doing so). If it is found that a CEO or board of director or some other institutional head advanced a policy of corruption to attain public monies for some nefarious end, such as smuggling underage women into the country to be used as sex slaves, then sure, that company deserves the disgrace it receives and would be likely stripped of future trust (for elevating unscrupulous business practices to positions of authority in the first place). The problem with the ACORN situation has been that they haven't been actually charged and convicted of such practices. They were of course shown doing some of them on TV and the internet (without the reasonable possibility of mounting their own fair legal defence as in a court of law where fraud is normally adjudicated), but they haven't been actually convicted of a crime here (naturally a number of major defence contractors have actually been found guilty of fraud and other acts of criminal intent or evasions, and have been fined in most cases many hundreds of millions of dollars for such things). Quite apart from whether or not I agree with the message and mission of agencies like ACORN (I might, I am somewhat sympathetic to poverty and oppression as problems which need advocates and tangible solutions), and quite apart from whether or not I agree that message and mission should receive federal funding (I might not here. Or at least, I might be less sympathetic to this than to other potential public means of alleviating poverty and oppression such as a negative income tax and educational reforms), the fact is that they DID receive such money, and are being stripped of that funding under rather conspicuous circumstances for what is now found to be an unconstitutional method. That is, to use Congress as a judge and jury and find them guilty of a crime, a means which was expressly forbidden under the Constitution of the United States referred to as a "bill of attainder". Since this is rarely used, I recall seeing it in history classes in high school with a degree of skepticism as to what on earth they were talking about. Generally we are a country content to use judicial systems to handle these matters and penalize misconduct (and use executive powers to pardon or reduce those penalties when our laws are themselves a force of misconduct), so it's not a common experience to see court rulings putting Congress in its place. There have been only 5 SCOTUS rulings in the entire history of the country successfully declaring an act as a bill of attainder (this was not SCOTUS but it may yet end up there). As so commonly happens when the constitution is invoked as a potential obstacle to doing something, it seems whoever wants to do something moves swiftly to dismiss it as an inconvenience. The fact that the Constitution has such a broad mandate on the manner and mechanisms of governance is no accident and means that in many such cases, this invocation will fall upon deaf ears as a majoritarian system does as it pleases to placate itself (supposedly). It does occasionally include specific no-nos that there is no way around in order to guarantee individuals and organisations within the country their relative human freedoms and equality before the law. Like this one.

If you want to deny funding to ACORN here are several arguments that you can make
1) That it is unconstitutional. Probably won't work, there's a huge pile of funding that this claim can plausibly apply to that isn't going anywhere and in some cases has been since deemed constitutional by court rulings. Appealing to an ancient document and seeking out the words "Congress shall make laws funding agencies doing X and Y", not finding such words, and then pretending that makes something legally invalid is not only ineffective, it's also an incomplete interpretation of the mission and methods of the Constitution and the government it set up (as well as the stated intentions of many of its constructors). Since the same reasoning often applies to the application of literal religious dogma, and often by the same sorts of people, it's hardly surprising to see. It's also generally inconvenient when the literal words get in the way of they are saying, meaning that their "interpretations" are based more on what they think government should do (for people other than themselves) rather than what the Constitution says it can do.
2) That it is unproductive. Probably won't work, most people seem to think social welfare programs are unproductive in some manner but also necessary. Economic and political experts tend to disagree on the importance of social welfare or a social safety net generally. Generally arguments there center on the importance of methods rather than that such things aren't necessary. Besides, there are in this case, far more government programs to which the model of "unproductive" spending applies. Market advocates (and now some liberals and ecologically sound thinkers) been trying to stamp out farm subsidies for decades. When it came up as an Obama campaign point I was impressed briefly. I was far less so when the actual budget came out. So good luck.
3) That it is an agency guilty of fraud, waste, and abuse. This mantra is quite effective at demonstrating a need to cut funding within political talking points and public interest. Not so much at actually generating the cuts in funding, at least at the federal level. If however this is the argument, then it remains to demonstrate that it is in fact guilty of those crimes and to show a sense of legal equivalence where other larger and perhaps more essential agencies are concerned. Other than the crime of setting up a harem of underage women prostitutes, I did not see evidence of any wrong doings myself. I haven't seen all the footage either so your mileage may vary. I personally would think a prostitute who doesn't pay taxes at all is more of a crime for example.

What you do not and cannot do is deny funding that already exists and deny future funding and contracts with the idea that they must be guilty of a crime solely because of public furor. Public furor was high over banking bailout scandals involving executive pay and demands and calls for action were made. What we could not do and did not do at the time was penalize those executives using legal force to tax or clawback monies that were given and promptly wasted. This may be a strong reason not to supply future aid to companies that perceived public sentiments so wrongly and acted inappropriately, or to consider more carefully attaching direct instructions as to the character of the money being supplied (something like: make loans or else). Here again, it was not in our power to deny funding already appropriated or even to deny future contracts specifically in the absence of any actual crimes (it was not in fact illegal for banks to use the money to pay bonuses, just dumb PR). The government might in my opinion benefit from a strong use of leverage or bargaining powers to attain more favorable terms with the agencies it supplies funding toward, and should certainly exercise greater diligence over its use as the money it doles out so rarely is visibly returned to taxpayers that supplied the bulk of funding to prevent or at least deter cases and causes of waste and fraud. It still shouldn't just go around penalizing people, companies, or non-governmental agencies that it interacts with through funding without actual legal cause.

Addendum. This does not mean I don't think ACORN should not have some sort of penalty imposed. But I object strongly to the methods being employed to do it. If they, as an institution, are found guilty of crimes against the public through the use of public monies, it will be appropriate for the judiciary branch to order any penalties that those infractions might entail and for the executive to carry them out by denying funding, for example. At present there is even administrative recourse as a matter of regulation (depending on the cabinet/sub-cabinet agency which was funding ACORN, usually HUD) which could have been used to find means to deny funding as well. Since both of these measures were sidestepped in a rush to assume and accord guilt, I disapprove of the methodology. In recent discussions online a historical case of a clan of cannibals came up. They were summarily executed when caught by a British army unit (this was in Scotland in the mid 18th century). It was then proposed that this was an example of a case where we don't or shouldn't bother with a jury and the accordance of basic civil rights. As in the case of ACORN, no matter how heinous you think their actions are, there is a process through which all manner of people are entitled to their defence. It may be a very brief process, perhaps a gruesome one, and not always what might be perceived as a perfect justice will result, but not following that process and slicing apart the contexts and protections that rules and laws supply to the rest of us for the convenience of immediately easing our conscience by depriving someone who will feel is heinous and infamous of their liberties and livelihood is far less likely to approach a just system.

The ease with which such abuses can be perpetrated and tolerated by a percentage of the public and the predictable claims of "judicial activism" where it results in these perceptions of imperfection (that is: that it produces rulings that are independent and opposite of a portion of the public's demands) are not inspiring if our idealistic society is deemed one of "rule of law" or "a Constitutional society" or whatever else it is that such people believe only themselves entitled to, but refuse to extend to others.

07 December 2009

planes, trains, and automobiles

And for an encore...

Go watch that, then watch a chase scene filmed in most movies of the 50s and 60s with the fast moving scenery next to it. It's funny to consider.

Less funny, but still cool, is the speed of those trains.

and by the way

Probably should have mentioned this when it hit, but the Huckabee clemency issue that came up is supposed to kill his political chances. Personally I thought what killed that was when he raised his hand to the "do you not believe in the theory of evolution?" question in the Republican primaries early on, and I apparently was wrong (or at least, significantly misjudged the viability of either disinterest or direct opposition to intellectualism in Republican politics). I don't think this will either, though it will create some unusual and misleading advertising in the future.

For the present case, my best guess will be that this is a hopeful wish that he will go away so that his base of support will go to Palin instead (based on the hopeful wish that she is somehow LESS offensive than Huckabee to normal, non-GOP base voters). I don't think there's actually that big of a cross-over between those two groups for base support (despite the fact that there's very little difference in actual politics/policies and populist messaging). Perhaps I am wrong there.

As far as the actual event, the pardoning/clemancy powers of executives and parole boards, I suspect the break point on how people reacted to this issue is more based on whether they already supported the pardoning powers of executives to begin with. After the Clinton administration and during my forays into political forums, I started seeing a lot of these discussions and polls over getting rid of pardons with favorable support from conservatives. Which I guess doesn't surprise me. I am not sure why it doesn't surprise me, given that both parties tend toward tough on crime positions or strong state actors over the justice system. But I haven't yet seen what the justification is for it. It sounds like the inverse of the "executing one innocent person" with anti-capital punishment arguments, with the "releasing one guilty person" instead. I'm not persuaded that this is a flaw with our system for a variety of reasons (recidivism rates of violent offenders, which this was not such a case, and more general problems with our ability to process parolees to measurably impact recidivism of crime further). The most persuasive argument is the political manner in which pardons and clemency are sometimes granted. In this particular case, there was a parole board which reviewed the case and approved it, it sounds like it was a ridiculous sentencing with possible racial overtones to it to start with, and the parole and release which may have required some medical assistance to maintain it was handled with our typical graceful incompetence by several state officials and actors after Huckabee's decisions ever took place. So those political calculations of abuse of these powers don't carry the weight that the emotional arguments do. We don't hear anything about the cases where state leniency worked, but where it fails this spectacularly, we hear all about it.

These are not circumstances that will be dissuading people who already were hostile to these executive powers (especially since it turned out to produce several deaths). But for people who see them as necessary, as it appears that our Constitutional drafters did (a curious omission of the populist opposition of conservatives on this and many other issues), I don't think we can fault the decision.

06 December 2009

realistically speaking, realism says really?

Milling about political forums online and Afghanistan came up, as things like this often do, and I was asked to explain what the logical problem that Obama created by campaigning on the "good war" theory of Afghanistan and why this shouldn't be so surprising to his supporters.

---- If I agreed that this war was necessary for our national security and interests, yes it would mean that (...support more troops..). I don't. So I would be leaving Afghanistan yesterday if that were possible.

It remains in our interest to combat al Qaeda physically where possible. But I don't see how we couldn't deter the Taliban from allowing institutional support via an international terrorist group without occupying the country(s) that they hold political sway in. The argument that we need to play whack a mole with countries who harbor terrorists has never been persuasive to me (whacking actual terrorists themselves, rather than resistance to occupation forces, is a different issue than their influence over governments and public support within different regions). The argument that we could, in the process of that, introduce "democracy" and that this would improve our national security and international standing is even less impressive. I'm quite sure nobody has instituted democracy and its traditions of human rights protections at the point of a gun in the entire history of the world. The one possible exception is the American Civil War, and one can glance at textbooks written by Southerners glossing over Reconstruction's benefits as oppressive intrusions and the subsequent periods of violent resistance and Jim Crow law to see that even that failed in large measure.

Bottom line conclusion: cut the losses and get the hell out because we should never have stayed in the first place. There was no greater national security interest (or any other sort of state interests, with the possible exception of cornering the opium market, certainly not the fighting of a "drug war") once Bin Laden escaped for the military to stay in the country. Period. We have special operations units and the FBI/CIA/NSA and everybody knows it. I don't see how that isn't or wasn't enough and that wars of empire and outright aggression are needed instead. Fund the necessary intelligence and black operations needed to kill or detain people who actually need killing or detaining because they are threats to international and national security. Moreover, if deterring countries that harbor and fund terrorism was our real and governing issue, then Pakistan and Saudi Arabia would have been among our primary targets back in 2001-03. It looks to me like deterring a particular variety of terrorism is more important, which is hypocritical and hence a valuable recruiting tool for our enemies.

If you assume, as I do, that much of the underlying problem is a sectarian/religious conflict within the Islamic world, then picking sides within that is probably not in our interest. Nudging the winning side toward something like liberal human rights, sure. Making sure it doesn't spillover into wider regional conflicts, sure. Bombing and occupying Muslim countries on the "wrong" side, no. That just paints a target on us.

There's also the matter of the percentage of private contractors being used as "troops". It's higher in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq. I'd rather just pay the actual troops more if we needed more of them. Apparently the evasion of rules of engagement and rule of law are more important still than troop levels. To me that suggests we have bigger problems with our strategy than we could resolve by putting more actual troops in.

The real problem for most people (particularly Obama supporters) is not that we're over there still, or even committing to be over there for longer. It's that this wasn't exactly a surprise but has become so. He addressed the Afghanistan/Pakistan status versus Iraq deliberately and at multiple occasions during his endless campaign stretch. Apparently people were not listening? I am not sure what his logic was of equating "not Iraq then or now" with "more Afghanistan today". I think I can buy the argument that "not Iraq" would have helped "more Afghanistan" 7 or 8 years ago. I didn't understand how that situation, where we were using special operations and air power to annihilate or capture targets of interest and/or support Afghani rebels and ground troops against a militant regime with minimal ability to rally the public to resist, equates to the situation now, where we are using ground forces to occupy a nation and drone strikes to attack positions of interest in a low intensity war setting fought against people who are now capable of being rallied by militant regimes because of years of occupation and the local corruption we replaced the militancy with. Really, the only way this was a winnable and "just cause" is if there was a legitimate regime installed and supported by public considerations freely that is being repressed by militant forces of terrorism (from either within or without the country, Pakistan is a better analogy for this than Afghanistan). Since it is an illegitimate regime supported by us or narco-terrorist dollars, it's not a winnable scenario.

The next domino is that we're now again subscribers to the domino theory. That somehow abandoning Afghanistan, even the limited half-assed solution Obama is using of timetables, abandons Pakistan (or more importantly Pakistan's nuclear arsenal) to the fate of being overthrown by militant Islamists. I don't follow how that argument made any sense in the 1950s and 60s when it was used to get us in and then keep us in Vietnam for a decade. It really makes no sense with a government that has a modernized army and a modestly powerful central government that it wouldn't fight back or accept assistance to fight back against attempts to overthrow it. If Canada were suddenly overthrown by French-Canadian separatists and lets say the population of parts of Louisiana started making noises and throwing molotov cocktails at the rest of us, we wouldn't fight back? Seems to me like the realistic scenario is to tell Pakistan to deal with its own problems and get its own house in order and then ask what, if any, support it needs from us to do that. It doesn't seem insensible that they would want us to stay in Afghanistan (except that their military doesn't really want us to put more troops in any more than the American public did), but this is because it serves THEIR national interests by shifting the responsibility for fighting to OUR military.

Therefore, the best case scenario is to leave Afghanistan, let the Pakistanis deal with their own internal security problems, lean on them and India to inch closer to some settlements over Kashmir and their other regional differences to give them some breathing room in which to do so, and return militarily to the region only if the Taliban again becomes an internationalist problem by supporting terrorist organisations (which we could then target over the Taliban itself). We can certainly make strong statements about human rights abuses and offer whatever means we find appropriate to nudge the extremist philosophy they use to govern toward the modern world (be that threats or money/aid with very big strings attached to it, like for example information on militant terrorist groups operating in or near Afghanistan). The problem is not Afghanistan. It's international terrorism. Until, or unless, this understanding becomes a central feature in our national strategies, we'll keep having these endless commitments of troops in places that they can do no good for safekeeping our national security and sovereignty.

The full problem for Americans, especially those that supported Obama last year more fully than I, is that they didn't ever hear him explain what the justification for military operations in Afghanistan was and nobody could be bothered to ask. "Not Iraq" is no longer good enough.

(I include myself in those who didn't bother to ask, Afghanistan was not nearly as important an issue for 1 as the general global economy/trade or the terrorism issue more generally simply because whether we are there or not people will be there killing each other in various forms and ill-conceived purposes for violence and 2, I personally didn't expect that whatever the real reason given was, we would be leaving anytime soon either. "Tough on crime" laws are more likely to be overturned than the US leaving a war like this mid-battle)