30 April 2012

On Game of Thrones

This has been on long enough and I've been watching it fairly religiously enough that it deserves some comment. It's pretty much just the sex and violence that require commentary. The levels of intrigue and politicking involved I think go without saying are interesting to me, in the same way that the "game" in the Wire was, watching agents move in pursuit and position with an idea of power over each other. Some spoilers are in order for people who haven't read or followed the series closely.

First off, sex.

I find occasionally the use of "sexposition" a little jarring. I don't mind watching humans have sex with each other, and there is a lot of "useful" sex involved and depicted (going back to Dany in season 1 with the Khal and the development of their relationship, or Loris and Renly, etc). That's not what I'm talking about. Rather, these are points where characters are having sex or parading around naked while talking to some other character, sometimes their sexual partner, sometimes not, about some particular thing or another. I do not mind the use of boring but essential narrative elements being explained to us. And it's a trick that goes back to Shakespeare or Aristophanes in theater uses. So it's not new. I still find it strange at times. And it's been fairly ongoing (right down to the first episode where Tyrion is found in a whorehouse to various conversations involving Little Finger/Baelish at one of his establishments).

Occasionally this figures into character developments in a useful way. For example Theon's sexual "conquest" on a ship while on his way home is deliberately causal and dismissive in a way that suggests his overriding character. And we see almost immediately how this matters because of how his sister, who has taken up his birthright as the important family member to command power and influence as an heir, passively observes and reacts to him and in effect uses his weaknesses against him to command even more power or influence within their family dynamic. I think it also plays into how he handles his forces that he is given later on. He looks immediately to a sexy flash to attain his power rather than something he can actually pay the "iron price" for in the same way that his manner around women glazes over that he's generally in the company of prostitutes is buying their affections and attentions rather than earning them.

I don't think the show is misogynistic or sexist as a result. Women have, in environments of inequality, long used sex as a means to power. This is sort of where Cersei, Dany, and the Tyrells come in. They've also been historically at the short end of those unequal arrangements in a way that portraying such is sometimes necessary, which is generally where Cersei (she's sitting on both sides of this coin, and to some extent so is/was Dany. Though she benefits from being in power of a less official variety.) and various prostitutes or commoners matter, as well as where Arya's disguise as a boy and her "dancing lessons" are important. But ultimately, it is also a productive way for people to express affection and desire to depict sex and sexuality as a part of normal relationships, such as there are any in the show. The staid fantasy genre for both book and film tends to use or overuse elements of purity and chivalry to exclude sex from the topic all together, to say nothing of sexual politics.

I have some appreciation for these effects. Since the show and the books are ultimately about the use and abuse of power, its impact on sexuality matters and seems to be depicted in a reasonable manner. It might be preferable that women should have greater equality in that world (Lady Stark being one of the few examples to the contrary), but their actions in a world of inequality are what you would expect.

Second, I tend not to be overly squeamish about violence. However, last week's episode had two of the more disturbing uses of violence involved of any show or film I've encountered. One was the highlight of an escalating series of sadistic jollies taken on by the young king, in this case amounting to an S&M match with himself and two prostitutes. In which he has one beat and eventually abuse the other. There is no sex involved and the closest he gets to participating directly is to offer up his belt as a weapon. Followed by a rather grotesque use of a piece of wood railing (I think), that we were mercifully spared from witnessing directly. It is, in other words, not enough that he have something sadistic of his own action, but that he should use this desire to command others to do the same. He's essentially spent all of his reign abusing his authority to do as he pleases to anyone; conducting farcical battles to the death, ordering the deaths of small children, even infants, to be bled in public, and so on. This is, fortunately, not likely to last for long nor does it seem possible to do so as few of the more demented reigns of kings and emperors in our own history could show had great length and power. But it does has all sorts of fallout (some in the public for instance believes it is Tyrion the dwarf who commands these atrocities from the king) that does last a lot longer. and which we can plausibly accept as a genuine reaction from the powerless to the explanation of the actions of their powerful lords and masters (that is to blame some other figure).

I see a similar reaction at play to that of Democrats or liberals to blame Republican leaders or conservative movement figures for actions that Obama has, apparently, willingly taken on his own recourse in preference to their perceived interests. On issues like health care, he got essentially the bill he wanted. There was not, for the most part, a good deal of conservative political influence on the final product. On gay marriage or gay rights generally, he's pushed only as far as he seems willing to have done so and hasn't gone further not because he wants to but is prevented, but because he doesn't seem to want to do so. On marijuana or immigration laws, there's a perception that he is and has been better than conservatives, even though arrests and deportations are actually pretty far up under his administration. On secrecy and treatment of civil liberties. And so on down the line down to some of the acts of violence themselves (assassination programmes of accused terrorists), which go unremarked because at that point it seems, nobody can believe it or is willing to believe that this is a power that would or could go irresponsibly used by this man. A similar affliction was accorded conservatives where President Bush was concerned, or Reagan, etc. Tax increases? Har. Why you must be joking. They wouldn't do that. Torture? No, no, we'd never do that. Except to people who we think deserve it and then we might wink at it. And so on. It's surprising how the powerless justify their heroes and imbue them with a quality of innocence and purity of motive that is entirely undeserved. Because, after all, they are still human beings. And human beings, as we shall see, are capable of being enormously fucked up creatures to one another for no good reason at all.

Speaking of torture. By far the most fucked up thing I've seen happen on this show was the torture sequence. First, it is plainly obvious that they're doing it for sport and to use their cruelty to pass the time rather than to develop good information or for some other supposed utilitarian premise. This is, as best I can tell, more or less how torture is actually deployed when it is in the wild, as it were. There is no actual interest in what a prisoner says or tells us. The point is to abuse them. It only gets covered up in that guise later when people find out about it. Here there was no veil of ignorance and innocence. It was just pure malice and brutality. And of a very... interesting method. They strapped a bucket onto a man's naked chest. After placing a rat inside of it. And then held a torch underneath the bucket to agitate the rat to escape. By burrowing through the chest in front of it. Romans historically we are told were to have applied something similar for some of their sterner capital punishments; throwing a man live into a river with some set of animals, monkeys or dogs or chickens, all tied up into a sack with them and allowing his body to be torn apart as they all drowned but while the animal(s) tried to desperately escape. That too served no purpose in all its malice, to supposedly deter others from the same gruesome fate (something for which I doubt the severity of justice but the swiftness of it did). Here the penalty was being carried out before the eyes of their next victims; victims who had no ability to escape or defend themselves and were simply left out in the open to die one by one to the amusement of their captors in a sadistic game. And what stops this cruelty? Not a demonstration or a letter demanding their oppression cease, nor the release of their captive state. It stops because the lord (Tywin Lannister, richest man in that world) commanding the castle they are at arrives and protests the waste of a body of available forced labourers in such a useless way. It's almost purely self-interest utilitarian command. He doesn't actually care that it is malicious and cruel. He cares that they're killing slaves and prisoners that he could use in a war or to be pressed into his personal service. There are, of course, many utilitarian self-interested motives to the pursuit of human rights of this sort, namely that they help promote a lot of other values we might find productive and useful to a society that practices them. But this was a pretty bold demonstration of such things. And it was all juxtaposed with the application of our malice for no purpose whatsoever. Which is precisely what purpose it usually serves.

As for the rest, several conversations that occur are brilliant. I really liked Tyrion's banishment talk with a King's Guard commander ("I'm not questioning your honor, I am denying its very existence"), and really he gets almost all of the wit to apply to others throughout the series. Arya and Tywin's talk in his war room meeting is awesome. He asks about the legends in the north surrounding her brother (which he does not know it is in fact her brother), and whether he can be killed. To which she responds "Anyone can be killed" with a none too subtle use of sustained eye contact and unspoken silence between the two to follow.  Given where her character is going (she's about to meet up with and eventually train with a band of assassins), it's a revealing picture. Dany got a lot of use of power lines in season 1, particularly as compared to her brother and within the context of her evolving marriage to the Khal as she became as true Khalessi in her own right. But she's getting into bluster mode in her far weakened position.

I suppose I am a sucker for a well-written show or production, and I usually penalise heavily for poor or sloppy writing (hence why I despised the Spider Man movies and the prequel Star Wars films).


First round matchups were set finally.
Since I'm still a Boston fan, I'll start with the East. (update: I initially jotted all this down pre-Rose ACL tear. I've had to amend my predictions accordingly. It might be a little confused as a result. I didn't check everywhere).

Philadelphia is an interesting 8 seed here. I don't think there's a danger of an upset. I do think there's a danger of a game or two being decided in the low 70s. These are two very good defensive teams (#2 and #3 overall) with minimal offensive skills (outside of Rose). Holiday in particular doesn't impress me on Philly (and played very poorly in game 1, unsurprisingly). Both teams are deep as well, which matters for injury recoveries and rest for later rounds. Neither team played a hard schedule. But. Chicago managed to win 50 games with their best player out for almost 30 versus a Philadelphia team that started hot and struggled late.

Chicago in 6 I'd say.

I know people get really excited when the Knicks are in the playoffs, but last year they were a no show. I don't expect that a team that is demonstrably worse than last year's team is going to make a better showing against a better team (Miami) than they drew in first round play last year (Boston). The relevant weaknesses of Miami I don't foresee showing up in this series. New York has a void at point, so Chalmers can lock down whoever gets thrown out there allowing LeBron to focus on Carmelo. Stoudemire and Bosh is a wash of ineffective power forwards who don't defend well. Their weak bench won't matter as the Knicks' bench is even worse, and really the only wild card is Chandler. It's possible he could control a game enough defensively to give Melo a shot at the end of a game.

Still. Miami in 4.

Howard is out for Orlando. Since he went out they have lost every meaningful game they've played (except for a win over Philly at home). Orlando is yet another team that isn't very deep in skilled players. They rely heavily on bombing threes, and that's a strategy that can work if you have a skilled rebounder/defender to help keep the score down and control possessions. Which they no longer have. Indiana is 8 or 9 deep, and their one weakness is the lack of a go-to-guy. Which shouldn't show up very much in a series where Orlando also lacks such a player. I'm not sure how that holds up over an entire series. It's possible the SVG factor matters for coaching more now with Howard out, but Orlando just doesn't look anywhere near as talented as Indiana ultimately.

Indiana in 6

This would be an interesting first round series if Al Horford were healthy, even his backup Pachulia is out. So it isn't very interesting because the Hawks cannot exploit the size disadvantages for Boston. Atlanta has struggled all year against decent to good teams. Neither team looks very deep (Boston is really weak outside of their top 6). Josh Smith should have a very good series. So should Rondo.

Boston in 6.

Second round, Chicago over Boston in 7. Miami over Indiana in 5. Boston could win a non-Rose series but lost two games this season against the Bulls without Rose playing. They will need everyone playing well to do it in other words.
Miami over Chicago in 6. I'm not convinced that Chicago has definitely figured out their weakness versus Miami from last year (LeBron/Chalmers shutting down Rose), but they have figured out how to win games without Rose around. I think this matters. I think also the lack of skilled players other than LeBron and Wade matters (Bosh will do almost nothing against Chicago). With Rose now out, I don't think Chicago can pull it out though.

Western Conference
Spurs in 4. I don't see this causing weird matchup problems like the Grizz did last year. Memphis was a very good 8 seed to boot. Utah is a pretty weak 8. This is also an odd Spurs team. It's not among the top 10 defenses. It is the top offense. I'm not sure how that works for them as they advance, but I don't think it will cause problems against a Utah team with one of the worst defenses in the playoffs (them, Denver, and the Clippers are the only below average defensive teams in the playoffs). Spurs are still the best rebounding team on defense and don't foul (or at least don't get fouls called on them). I think this may mean that their defense is underrated for a variety of reasons.

Oklahoma in 5. I don't think Dallas is as deep as last year. They play 8 or 9, but Barea or Chandler aren't there and Vince Carter or Haywood aren't all that good. Maybe they can stretch it to 6. Durant versus Dirk is a nice matchup for both teams and for the NBA, but it doesn't help Dallas much. Marion can maybe slow him down, but then there's the Westbrook problem. I do see weak points in OKC where they aren't making jumpers and Westbrook does turn the ball over a lot. They do get to the line a lot though. And if they're smart (or better coached than Brooks has been), they'd attack the basket. Especially late in games. Dallas really doesn't have a defensive anchor with Chandler gone from last year. Jitters aside in game 1, I'm comfortable with this one.

Lakers-Nuggets. This is the most interesting first round matchup to me.
LA effectively has three (very good) players, and a possible fourth solid player is out with a suspension. That's it. Denver goes 8 deep and runs like crazy. They are the fastest team in the playoffs and if they can push the pace they can get a ton of easy baskets (they had at least one game with over 80 points in the paint this season, which is insane). I don't know that this is a formula that can upset over a 7 game series. It will however make for interesting and possibly exciting games. I'd say Lakers in 6.

Grizzlies are a dangerous team. Clippers would be if Billups hadn't gotten hurt. This is the closest matchup between teams. I'd say Memphis in 7. The size matchups are nullified. Both teams are big or can go big. It might matter who wins rebound or blocks battles each game. One curious element will be whether the Clippers continue not to turn over the ball very much against the most turnover forcing team in the league. I suspect if Paul can play at 80%, that will be true. I just don't know if he will be enough to win a series here. (Clippers' execution, especially down the stretch, in game one suggests that he might be, nevertheless I'll stick to the Grizz in 7). 

Spurs over Grizzlies in 7. Grizzlies don't impress me defensively that much to slow down San Antonio enough to win the series, and they are a poor shooting team to boot, but it will be a difficult series because of matchup problems.
Oklahoma over Lakers in 6. A lot of teams out West are built to deal with the Lakers size advantage and I don't see it hurting OKC that they're one of them. They've also been seasoned on last year's playoff hunt enough to counter the "Kobe wants to win" element in my estimation.
Spurs over Oklahoma in 5. They haven't been seasoned enough to counter a team that is better coached and just as skilled as they are.

Spurs over Miami in 6. I'm leery of this pick because of the Spurs' apparent weakness on defense but all of the good defensive teams have big problems. Chicago is out their best player. Boston really struggles to score and Allen is hurt. Philly is playing the Bulls in round 1. Orlando is out their best player and defender. Atlanta will start missing having a decent center. Miami looks flawed to me. Memphis is really the only other dark horse contender out West that can guard anyone and they'd have to make it through the Clippers, Spurs, and Thunder/Lakers to get there. Which I regard as unlikely. I might have to simply say that I regard the Spurs' more pedestrian defensive performance during the regular season as an aberration caused by the weird schedule and resting of their core players often and that they can turn it up defensively if needs be where their offense is already reliably flourishing.

The federalism problem

In recent debates, it is clear that there is a growing concern for an object policy like national educational standards. I can sympathize with some of these concerns that underlie such a policy but I find the solution more problematic than most. These are the numerous problems
1) We have a fairly clear supposition of the following
a) that strong investment and support of education is a positive net good for a society, both for individual benefits, economic opportunity/equality, and for net economic growth as a whole.
b) that at present our educational system has infrastructural deficits in attaining this end goal.
2) We do not have a very clear idea how to attain that goal. There are numerous models around the globe of educational success and varying definitions of what defines such successes. The variations between "success" in the Shanghai or Singapore model and that of Finland or other Northern European republics is rather vast, both in results and methods.

This means that it is unclear what national standards would be best designed to accomplish, or how they should accomplish them.

3) In the absence of well-defined and independently useful metrics, it is unclear how we might measure the accomplishment of such things. We rely strongly on standardised tests, which have at best, only a marginal utility to study the impact and efficacy of our educational system and the agents we have appointed to carry it out. By contrast, the Finns do not seem to bother with standardising test results (other than for college admissions periods). And they're apparently kicking our ass on them all the same.

4) I think this argues strongly for the continued use of the "laboratory of democracy" model of decentralised federalism, as it pertains to education. With the use of federal involvement perhaps in some form like that of "race to the top", that is a reward structure to encourage states and cities to innovate and succeed in the platform of education with minimal concern as to how they do so from any top-down institutional perspective. I have my own concerns with "race to the top", namely that it still relies too heavily on testing regimes, but I admire the conceptual approach. Generally speaking in the absence of clear evidence of what works and what does not to achieve a public policy goal, even one of great importance with definite and large externality effects and free rider problems like education provision, we should not be invoking strong central responses. At best we can possibly acknowledge that some measure of taxation to provide that service publicly is appropriate, but the administration may be a more vague open ended system than, say, central and public monopolies on its provision. Other governmental involvements might be to assure that there are not discriminatory practices that conflict unnecessarily with broader educational missions, such as by excluding LGBT children or children adopted/raised by same, or practicing racial discrimination in acceptance of student and parent applications. Gender discrimination seems to have some possibly useful effects (For example, women on average behave differently in a unisex environment in what seems like a constructive way. That is, that they are more competitive than when around men in a mixed gender setting, where they can be rendered more passive by our social norms). Though I'm not sure it should be used permissively at all times (there is value in interacting in mixed sex environments for lots of other reasons) and I do not think it appropriate to systematically exclude a gender from educational opportunity entirely at all.

5) My primary concern with any nationalising standards of education is the same I have for those of state or local standards. Namely, who determines these? At present we often elect school board members to local and state offices, with the side effect of only cursory attention being paid by most voters to their actual qualifications to help determine school policies and educational curricula in any subjects. Presumably we could follow a similar model to decide federal standards, or have the tangential effect of having to lobby an appointed bureaucracy and/or influence it through the election of other public officials (Presidents for example). The existence of standards however does not presuppose what those standards will be or how they will be amended or by whom.

6) To me this seems like a model destined to repeat and inflame the smaller turf battles which occur in thousands of school districts and statehouses around the country at a national level and "we" would have to wage unceasing war with social conservatives over the content and instruction of science or history courses in order to avoid surrendering control over those standards to their perusal and objection. At present, the amount of influence formerly wielded by a dentist over not only Texas but large portions of the country concerning history or science instruction, curriculum and textbook content is a warning that forming large national controls over such things is not likely to result always in the well-meaning intention of providing a better liberal arts education base to the broader public.

7) Many of those aforementioned social conservatives already educate their children at home, or with explicitly religious instruction, and often at public expense. This suggests that their pet issues of religious indoctrination, prayer, creationism, historical revisionism, or whatever the case may be, are likely to be values they wish imposed anyway and will seek means to achieve them. Some of these are Constitutionally protected values (religion for instance), even if they are not imposable values on others by that same Constitution. (Note: this is not to say that all home school instruction is valueless, or that parents should take no effort in the education of values and subjects for their children, but that there are tacit motivations invoked and involved which are of importance to many parents and families).

8) This suggests that an alternative to stronger and tighter national and central control is to abolish or reduce local and state controls. If social conservative types are already going to flee the perceived liberal hegemony over education, then I say let them go. And perhaps they will stop bothering the rest of us if their concerns are allowed to be addressed more privately. I find that a practical objection is that there would be too many nutjobs. But in my estimation there are already too many nutjobs and that abolishing formal religiously-based instruction through schools is unlikely to rid us of them

9) I would also say that religious training is hardly the only source of moral hazard as there are various liberal credos that worry me as being explicitly anti-science too or dishonest assessments of historical fact too. Opposition to nuclear power or genetically engineered food/products is more of a gut reaction than an educated response in many cases and many anti-vaccination advocates are drawn from a liberal elite just as easily as they may be Christian science types. To me this suggests further difficulty with decisions over national standards as there are many, many possible intersections of those standards with educational subjects and the approaches taken to study them.

10) A further practical objection is that in someway the lack of (enforceable) standards would mean that in some cases educational attainment would suffer. On some of these points I am prepared to agree. Though, I'd have to argue we already have many institutions called schools which also fail to help their students attain educational successes on the one hand.

11) Secondly, I would argue that it probably matters very little what a person learns about the scientific method, evolutionary theory v creationist mythology, historical facts and figures from legitimate sources versus revisionists, and so on to their overall life satisfaction and career or job prospects. In fact it matters very little how well one studies Algebra 2 functions, for that matter. To the extent that these things matter right now, they impact political policy through the public's intervention into educational policies and how they are set, especially at a local level. Not always in a positive and healthy manner. It might matter in the abstract value of creating an educational system that fosters a love and desire for learning and study in the subjects that might occur to the person in question. But to the extent that our educational system creates more inquisitive academics and skeptics, I'm not sure this is a desirable or necessary goal in and of itself for everyone we seek to educate. We should encourage those who are able and willing of such things, and have available the methods and systems that might help foster creative and innovative thinkers to operate more freely. But that's not everyone's view of educational success. (To me this means that for most people, education is not about learning).

12) To the extent that there are or will be debates over "values" concerns like prayer in school or some such, I think these are abated if more people who care about such things are permitted to allow their own institutions and children to practice them. That's not to say that they will be silent on the issue of whether "our" institutions should likewise practice their methods, but they will have less teeth to bare and less ability to make such requirements insistently if they are allowed their own arrangements. My own preference should be that people have religious institutions for this purpose and their educational institutions are for other purposes. There are however crossover elements in terms of these vague "values" to be inculcated into the next generation between those institutions that are not easily resolved in a public policy way. Simply abolishing religion from schools and education entirely is not workable. However desirable I might find such a hypothesis valuable personally, a government powerful enough to do so would contain mechanics capable of abolishing more secular values as well or of establishing its own variety of what those values shall be.

19 April 2012

Rantings and ravings. At a moderate volume.

Like many people, I followed the course of the various occupy demonstrations. While I tended to disagree with some of their purported objects for protest (things like protesting what gets built where for instance), and especially their purported solutions to actual problems like inequality and the banking structure (which I usually found to make no sense), I did not think it was generally appropriate to squash these demonstrations with force and aggression in response and to suppress media or individual coverage of those squashings (by keeping out press, doing these things at odd hours, and confiscating or destroying cell phone cameras).

It did not surprise me that there were inevitably cases of bald naked uses of force that did squeak through the media firewalls. What is interesting is the aftermath of the most famous of these (Lt Pike's pepper spray).

There's a couple major points that come to mind.
1) Police and other authorities apparently don't care whether they are actually enforcing laws anymore. There's a lot of cases of arrest or detention for filming cops in a public space for instance all around the country. In most states this is not illegal. Almost all of them actually. In this particular instance, cops moved in to shut down a public demonstration that was not in fact violating any laws. I recognize that some of the occupy demonstrations did in fact violate various legal codes and that arrests and breaking up the demonstrations becomes a necessity. The one at UC Davis wasn't in violation of any significant laws.  Despite the lack of legal clarity, they moved in anyway.

2) They also moved in with weapons and riot gear that they weren't supposed to be using, weren't trained on its use, and so on. Again, this apparently is a minor concern. I see this often in related issues for cops dealing with pet dogs. That they tend to shoot. Why? Because most police forces do not offer training on dealing with pets. A dog charging at the officer is thus perceived as a deadly threat even though most dogs are pretty friendly or curious rather than working as trained attack dogs. And regardless of how big or small the dog is Puppies and other family pets have been executed in the same casual manner that Lt Pike used when deploying the pepper spray on a crowd of peaceful demonstrators. Proper training for dealing with difficult situations it appears isn't even a considerable help. At least for the officers who take the effort to do their jobs properly and appropriately. But the complete lack of it doesn't seem to offer much help to the general public and a sense of trust in law enforcement either.

3) Lack of respect for a chain of command. In NYC recently, there's been an ongoing scandal concerning comstat crimes disappearing. There's also been a standard practice of stop and frisk searches (which are questionable constitutionally already), which includes an entrapment practice of asking people to remove things from their pockets and thus display openly any small personal quantities of narcotics. Which are mostly "legal" in NYC in the form of having a joint on one's person for example. They become illegal when displayed or used publicly, such as on a street search location. The commissioner ordered this practice stopped. It's increased in use since he so ordered. Increased. As for the COMSTAT scandal, the cop who was the whistleblower for felonies going uninvestigated and unrecorded was detained in a psychiatric unit for two weeks (as with the above case of the officer responding to a mental health call who ratted out the two cops issuing a beat-down rather than doing their jobs. Apparently crossing the blue line is what makes a person "crazy"). I get the feeling that there's a lot of institutional "we know how to do this, fuck you boss-man/woman" aspects to policing where explicit commands get ignored or even blatantly flaunted.

4) And to boot, the people involved in this response never get punished. Lt Pike isn't going to get fired after all this. Despite being insubordinate to his command and brutal to citizenry. And apparently somewhat incompetent too. This is because this public and independent report has no bearing on his status. Only a secret internal review does. That's how this usually works. The public knows and can witness obvious criminal behavior on the part of a sworn officer of the law but can do nothing. There's a qualified immunity usually applied to the execution of their duties that allows a cop to shoot, tase, and otherwise assault human beings (and pets) and not (usually) be held criminally responsible. Sometimes people can sue the department for violations of civil rights or medical bills, or wrongful deaths, and can often win. This is fine for restoring a measure of justice to the individuals who were harmed, but does nothing to prevent or even discourage future harms by the same officers involved. Who are often serially offensive. Instead there are legal channels in place to protect their jobs, to keep them out in force, and to restrict the flow of information on officers who are abusive or destructive to the respect of law and law enforcement within the public they are intended to serve.

Police do have a difficult job, and sometimes mistakes occur. We should be able to draw a clear distinction between heat of the moment decision making that sometimes has errors or weaknesses in training and problems caused by more deliberate viciousness or brutality. There are all manner of policing tactics now in reasonably common use that are either savage ("Stop resisting" or "officer feared for his safety") or of a questionable Constitutional legality (drug dog searches and associated asset forfeiture trolling). These are legitimate protections for officers and their behavior in conducting their duties to enforce laws that are being systematically abused by some among them. And this is all tolerated.

I've come to a conclusion that at this point, one way to get this system to have some accountability to simply look for local and state officials, especially prosecutors or judges, who have received police endorsement. And then vote against them. Always. Never, ever vote for anybody who has the cops support. Unless the police institution itself has a more transparent system of civil review that permits its most egregious employees to be punished and even dismissed where needs be for serious abuses of civil liberties and physical force uses (including using pepper spray or tasers or other non-lethal weapons, as well as lethal weapons or dangerous weapons like flashbang grenades, or military grade assault rifles, up to surplus APCs and attack helicopters and drones), there's no reason to believe that a public official who has earned their endorsement is going to institute one. So why vote for anyone who has such support?


I have to confess. As dumb and corrupt as spending a lot of money flying back and forth to California every weekend on DoD transport (Panetta) or holding a conference in Vegas and attending a junket in Hawaii (the GSA) is for public officials, these are hardly the most significant scandals to me that have occurred. I find them almost amusing in their petty flavor (were they to occur at a local level like this, I'd care a lot more I suppose) . I favor looking at lack of investigation and prosecution on torture, the continuing aggressive prosecution and militarization of the drug war (especially so in states that have more tolerant laws) and especially the gun running scandal associated with this, and then weird industrial policy implementation for things like Solyndra. And at the low end is the continued obsession of the TSA to advertise its ability to confiscate soup. As though this was somehow making us all safer.

All of these things cost the public potentially billions of dollars. Billions. With a B. Not hundreds of thousands wasted, billions of dollars. Billions. I feel this is important to note that it's really a lot of money. Some of them even have obvious villains who can be easily held personally accountable, as in these cases. In some cases there are actual human beings being killed and assaulted. Nope. Nobody cares. We are talking about these little bits of fiscal mayhem instead. It's not like these other stories don't get covered. The gun-running scandal in particular had news coverage and congressional hearings involved. But I don't see it still getting covered or talked about as a political point. You'd think during an election year that sort of thing could be constantly distorted. 

Guess not.

12 April 2012

Quick thoughts on Zimmerman v Martin

1) I'm glad this is finally going to be adjudicated. This to me was the foremost problem with the situation, that it was (apparently) decided that a story was sufficient with minimal investigation. I'm not very concerned with the outcome per se, more that it there seemed more than enough here to require a more thorough processing of the facts available than was done.

2) I'm not so glad that there's been a lot of racial tinge added to this story. I realize that there are two racial components (profiling behavior of authority figures for racial minorities, and the local police's apparent indifference to running proper investigations where deaths of racial minorities occur) and that we should certainly and by all means discuss and debate the social importance of resolving those issues. But the rest of this crap has gotten out of hand.

3) While there have been a few right-wing blogosphere attempts to paint both the victim as "not-victim" and the general community as indifferent to other related problems (violence within ethnically defined communities), those have been either a) absurd and stupid, bordering on outright racism (Geraldo/Hanson/Derby especially) or b) forgetting the actual problem (the investigation or lack thereof and proper legal accounting for someone's death) in favor of straw men or imputing the impact of Obama/Jackson/Sharpton onto the scene itself, often incorrectly there too (as in the case of Gingrich or Juan Williams) or c) portrayed the "victim" status as though the rash behavior of teenagers is somehow deserving of death in the first place. Being a jerk isn't something you deserve to get shot for. Being black and wearing a hoodie isn't either.

4) I do not understand the rush to vilify the "stand your ground" laws. I think it is possible these are being misapplied or misinterpreted, sure. I don't see how they are necessarily the cause of violence in this instance or in some others, nor are they much related to the relative indifference/incompetence of running proper police investigations into shooting deaths. Even if the law might excuse the event as self-defence, it still seems important to have some accounting for the facts to make sure. These laws, as interpreted by their architects, aren't intended to allow for someone to stalk and pursue another person and then, in the inevitable conflict, shoot them. That entire episode is clearly distinct from a case where a person might defend themselves or a neighbour/friend/etc from a violent assault with force, even potentially lethal force. I suspect this has to do with discomfort with guns generally. While I share that discomfort, I'm not opposed to our laws permitting the ethical deployment of them for defensive purposes. If they need to be clearer or more distinctly termed laws so they can be properly enforced, so be it. But I'm not sure this is the case.

It's also important to know what we don't know in all of this
What we don't know: If Martin struck first, in an apparent attempt to defend himself against an incited attacker/follower or out of some undisclosed factor. If there was a scuffle, where Martin was at least perceived as an aggressor, it's probable that Zimmerman could claim a self-defence for the actual crime of the death and the decision to shoot and that this claim might be accurate or convincing enough that he doesn't go away to prison. I'm prepared to accept that there's a lot we don't know about the most pertinent portions of the case and that there may be enough in that empty box that a man may be judged innocent or may be guilty only of much lesser crimes than premeditated violence and murder.

I don't think that ought to excuse much of the rest of his behavior leading up to the incident if so, but it's also not clear that much of that behavior was inexcusably criminal either. Just incredibly stupid and possibly racist.

11 April 2012

Rick, we hardly knew ye. But good riddance

My best guess for why Santorum ran in the first place is still to get his google search page results to be something a little less degrading. And my best guess for why he was able to stick around so long is that he wasn't as loose a cannon as any of the other "not-Mitt" contenders. At least in so far as when he said things that were patently crazy or absurd, they weren't crazy in ways that were likely to offend potential conservative voters in a GOP primary. So to summarize:

1) I think it was instructive to have Santorum giving voice to a series of conservative views, particularly as they relate to women and sexuality. These views exist, and they are part of the infrastructure behind anti-abortion politics, health care politics, sex education in schools, etc. I'm glad they finally got out in the open. I don't think they would have without Santorum being around in prominence. I'm not sure that these are necessarily well-thought out basis for most people, as is the case with most individual political views. But I do suspect that a certain level of discomfort with young women having relative control over their own sexual identity and lives therein is involved in the birth control debate and the others. I personally thought the smartest move was to make birth control OTC, which would make it cheaper and more accessible, and possibly to subsidize it for the poor, as we in effect already do with funding for planned parenthood. The opposition by conservatives on these two views was often just as extreme as the opposition to the ill-thought out health insurance mandate concerning birth control. Which to me suggests that the problem, for them, is women, particularly teens and coeds, using birth control and not government control. (Making birth control OTC would make it less regulated for instance, supposedly a good conservative goal).

2) I don't think it was instructive to see that there was a large contingent of GOP voters who are lukewarm at best concerning Mitt Romney. This was almost a given from observing his previous Presidential candidacy run in 2008, the relative indifference to Mormons among some base GOP voters (which is, admittedly and embarrassingly, less common than the level of animosity presented by liberals toward Mormons), and most pressing, his past positions on health care (and abortion) and overall rhetoric concerning the economy and wealth making him a less than ideal candidate for this race to many conservatives. This feature of the race was a foregone element, and it was amusing watching it glob onto a series of mediocre candidates (including Santorum, but mostly prominently Cain and Gingrich and Perry). And equally amusing to see that it largely, though not entirely, avoided Ron Paul. Mostly because of his foreign policy views being persona non grata for Republicans (though he had other interesting and enlightening moments, such as his invocation of the golden rule being booed by conservative audiences and his support of DADT repeal being at odds with the bulk of his party). I don't consider the Congressman someone I would support in an election per se, for a variety of policy and rhetorical differences (most especially on the Federal Reserve, where I also have reservations about Johnson and the "mainstream" Libertarian party as a whole for the amount of influence wielded by Austrian goldbug types). But he was at least less toxic than most of these idiots and it was very amusing watching conservatives, even self-described "tea-party" types, spewing bile and hatred at his very mention, followed only by some shudder of revulsion for Romney.

3) Elevating people like Santorum or Gingrich or Perry or Cain is instructive, in that it demonstrates a concern more for invective rather than conviction or principles, and in particular for invective opposing liberals rather than any importance on any "meaningful" policy grounds (such as, say, the deficit or economic growth). It also largely suggests that the most central economic ground for the GOP to fight over is tax policy. Which other than major reforms to simplify and restructure subsidies and tax credits (few of which enjoy conservative support), has few proposals likely to have any impact, positively or negatively, on growth and has several which do nothing about deficit closure to boot. So that's fun. And then it means that the culture war truce that a more sane conservative figure might advocate (Mitch Daniels or maybe Chris Christie) isn't going to happen.

08 April 2012

I call BS

I've run into a consistently made argument that I'm having a harder and harder time taking the people making it seriously.

This is it: "group x doesn't care about problem y", eg Muslims don't care about Islamic extremism or black people don't care about black on black crime, or whatever the flavor of the month for use in talking about "strange other people" is. I think there are probably circumstances where this formulation might be true, but we'd be talking about extremely radical and small circles of people for whom it is, and not these broad sweeping generalisations.

People who make this argument probably care less about problem y than the group they suppose does not care, and certainly don't care as much about that problem than activists within that group, which in a large population carries enough diversity to have many such activists (along with other activists from other sectors of the populace). The reason I say this is that people who make this argument can not be bothered to find out who the activists and wonks and so on who are busy with a problem, and to note that they are often as not, drawn from among the very people they claim don't care. In other words, they are too lazy to notice that the statement is obviously false. This to me suggests definitely that they don't actually know or care very much about whatever the problem was in the first place, but also that they probably don't know or care very much about whatever that group was.

I think we should just put out a blanket "shut the fuck up, you don't know what you're talking about" hat or dunce cap on someone's head whenever they would presume to make this type of argument. Maybe there are cases where it might be accurate, but it would be better to just talk about whatever the problem was even then rather than to engage in a  mind-reading trick of projection (or to assume that there are not other equally valid issues concerning a given population for which you or I might not see as particularly valid. Or be aware of).

06 April 2012

People are weird. Language edition

I don't think it is necessary to get too twisted over Obama characterising the Ryan budget proposal as "social Darwinism". There are several reasons.
1) There are republican/libertarian voters who already don't see "social darwinist" as an epithet and see it as desirable (Randians I should think are among this. There's also a strong strain of conservative talking points that sees poverty as a deserving condition for those that are so afflicted). So far as Ryan's budget lives up to anything approaching a social darwinian worldview, it is exceptionally complimentary to call it that in the view of such people. This is mostly because it does not come close to achieving any social darwinian aims. The basis for this as a non-issue is that these are voters who either won't see Ryan's budget as such a thing, but will see it as closer than anything from the Democratic Senate/Obama. As such, they probably will already vote against Obama anyway and he risks nothing to raise the issue.
2) The vast majority of people who vote for Democrats are not likely to care very much about the risk of actual social darwinists. The sort of person who does worry about such things is likely to approve of Obama's rhetoric in this case for political reasons rather than out of some actual policy based fear. That is, that this is probably a person who already dislikes Republican/conservative conceptions of market behavior, to say nothing of libertarian views of either the Chicago, Austrian, or Randian schools. Or those of any actual social darwinists. They will approve therefore because it sounds like Obama has picked a fight.
3) Political rhetoric is valuable for political reasons. The reason Republicans have called liberals/progressives/etc "socialists" is that it has political value resonating from the cold war era. It has little to do with what few policy disagreements Republicans and Democrats have on most economic issues. Modest proposed changes in marginal income tax rates are not by themselves very socialist for example. The distinction between a government issued voucher structure of health care insurance and health care mandates is small in economic terms (it is bigger than the distinction between employer mandates and tax credits and health care mandates for individuals, but it's not so big that I care all that much to support Ryan-type ideas to the exclusion of much better market-based ideas as even a half-step). Rhetoric makes it sound like there are fights worthy of having in these arenas.

I suppose I would prefer if semi-libertarian conceptions of economics and fiscal/social policy were not so easily depicted as "social darwinism". Because I don't think this depiction is fair and accurate. But I'm not sure it accomplishes much in the present election cycle. Libertarians are already a marginal influence on policy in most cases and what influence they are having on policy tends to be in other areas than in the neoliberal consensus of economics in the post Cold War era (eg, on gay marriage, drug war, war on terror, relative pacific foreign policy views, etc). So it's unclear that being so labeled has much of a degrading effect in the near term. (This is to say that I don't see much actual libertarian economic thought being integrated within the Republican policy proposals on economic issues, even though there's clearly a "tea party" influence to some of it).

The real downside is that it continues keeping very marginal or unimportant fights at the forefront of our political views and not that it marginalises the views of close ideological cousins. I want people to argue about civil liberties violations. Supreme Court decisions allowing strip searches or cell phone tracking to me are far more offensive to human rights and liberty than those allowing unlimited corporate and union donations to election campaigns.* I think of the drug war of prohibition as among the most damaging social policies we've pursued, both for race relations, economic potential, and overall social justice and social liberty. Neither major party speaks to rising public interest in at least legalisation of one substance (marijuana). I want people to look to give voice to their purported war weariness. Rather than to tolerate continued rampant and wasteful interventionism and thus have only choice between one form of interventionism and the other. There is even a very small social gap between the views and policies of the sitting President and his political adversaries on issues like homosexual marriage and adoption rights (the difference certainly exists on these, but there are still many Republicans with much more modest views which are roughly those of the mushy center of the American polity), the effective defence of abortion rights (Democrats mostly just defend the existence of such rights rather than the actual practice of them), and so on. Perhaps we don't talk about these issues constructively and often because the distinctions between parties is smaller, but it would seem like there is a constituency available for them where a voice would be appreciated and even beneficial to the country as a whole.

*I do think regulations requiring better transparency would be appropriate there, just as the court upheld transparency requirements for petitions for referendums. But I'm otherwise unmoved by the amusing Colbert gag on SuperPACs as though his movements would have been illegal before Citizens United. He's both a product of a media corporation, which was previously excluded from regulations, and receiving mostly individual donations rather than corporate support. The movements of Adelson types were also not illegal before, they just used different mechanisms, 529 plans. In other words, the strange focus on Citizens United and SuperPACs isn't all that interesting to me as some new attempt or weapon for oppression.

Same old songs

There's a ton of interesting elements to this, but a couple big ones.
1) Conservatives are better than liberals at a version of ideological turing tests. This isn't that surprising where it is understood that conservatives use a wider variety of moral dimensions (things like disgust and in-group loyalty for instance) that liberals tend to use much less, if at all. It is however surprising where they then disagree with liberals on some issues. I suspect this has to do with the stronger in-group loyalties of BOTH groups.
2) The relationship between secular versions of religion to religion. Things like patriotism and nationalism are very, very much like religious institutions, and our political institutions also take on their forms. There's just a different item in the "god" slot. This is probably why I find more common agreement with this sort of assault on religious institutions than on simply disapproving of the whole god aspect to them. Which is by itself a pretty painless delusion. This I also might explain why I find nationalism in particular and patriotism at some level to be offensive and damaging in the same ways that religion can be abused against "others", and why I find something like the Reagan worship of conservatives and especially the rewriting of the Reagan myth to suit new political goals to be disturbing.

All of this comes out of the theories of evolutionary psychology, and it's not surprising to me that they would evolve on very similar lines as a result. One aspect that I think Haidt has a problem here is that there seems to be an empathy gap resulting from the "teams" relationship that politics, and religion, and others take on. This gap often takes a LOT more than mere common ground associations to overpower. Or at least, that is, that while that gap might be closed between friends or families, but extending that gap to others who share the same differences that friends or family members do takes more work.

02 April 2012

An incomplete list of advice for political novices

1) Pay more attention to passage and execution of laws than to elections, if you must pay attention to politics. If nothing else, you will be a much better informed voter by knowing something of what the people you elect actually will do or have done than by the simple heuristics of things like "what party they belong to". 

2) Generally ignore politics. You probably have better things to do with your time. You know, like "life". Be aware that you more than likely don't know very much about almost any given political issue. Unless you follow politics like a junkie or are an activist, you will feel you have things to do. This means of course that your opinions should be noted to yourself as ill-formed and incomplete assessments. That doesn't mean they're necessarily wrong either, or that people are generally stupid. Ignorance differs from stupidity. This can however mean it may be perfectly appropriate to abstain from expressing opinions as actual votes and that people telling you that you must or should vote are missing some vital points (such as freedom of speech protections allowing you to voice even ill-formed opinions in a manner possibly less damaging to the general public).

3) Whenever anyone proposes passing a new law in the wake of a major media story (usually a sensational murder or kidnapping) that you did actually hear about, you should a) be skeptical of the terms of the law and its probable and actual utility to the public and b) keep a closer eye on the politician(s) who pass it, introduce it, or the organisations that encouraged its passage.

4) The easiest thing to do if you refuse to follow these things, refuse to admit your ignorance of the actual issues, and refuse to oppose sensationalist figures and movements, is something like the following:
a) don't pick people who "share your values". They more than likely do not. This is an utterly useless heuristic 95% of the time.
b) don't use campaign commercials to gather information. Most of you say you don't, but most of you actually do. This is why mudslinging has worked for thousands of years.
c) follow interest groups that appear to share your interests, or, alternatively, those that don't appear to share your views and see who they appear to support or oppose. I fully support a system of transparency wherein politicians have to disclose their ardent supporters and major donors by the NASCAR patch method.

5) Aggregation errors would be one thing if they could be canceled out by random ignorance, but these ignorance biases are systemic. It's therefore important to eliminate them. Or failing that reduce them. In addition, it appears that generally speaking the biases are toward "conservatism", not as the political ideology and its specific points, but toward the status quo rather than acceptance of the newest and brightest. Hence things like the rate of incumbent re-election, or toward preserving previously established legal or cultural mores (and explaining some of the annoyance of even liberals at things like Citizens United because it overturned some previous established law). This is also why things like immigration or significant technological shifts are often treated with such public disdain.

As less obvious examples, something that occurred to me after a recent dream (which happened the night after reading this), was the presentation of children being offered allowances, or reimbursements for yard work by parents. Within the dream context, it was clear that there's a significant gap on whether or not children can/should/do receive allowances from parents, or that they would do so for chores or arduous tasks like landscaping or snow shoveling. What wasn't made clear in the dream context is the also significant percentage of children who don't even have lawns or driveways on which to perform such tasks, and the relative correlation therein with denser urban environments (and hence, some amounts of poverty). Without even that opportunity, and in some cases even the awareness of such an opportunity, more changes in experience and development are bound to occur. Those are extremely subtle biases that are easily available to us beyond the more obvious "this person looks/talks funny" or "is an opposite gender/sexual orientation" or "eats strange things/listens to strange sounds and calls it music" biases.