28 December 2013

Gun control

This is the section on guns from the previous post. There's a section on abortion coming if you wish to be reassured or pissed off by that instead.

For gun control, I am perfectly happy to have conversations over the possible effectiveness of various proposals in a theoretical debate. I find that most proposals don't have much regulatory value to the actual problems in our gun culture and all its associated carnage in public and private violence. I'm also perfectly happy to point out that, despite the elegant plans often drawn up, we have a second amendment. And while I'm not necessarily happy about it, there are legal scholars and court rulings which say it is kind of a big deal. In the haste to say we need gun control, it's rather important to acknowledge this exists.

It is not sufficient to begin arguments as "you don't need..." when talking about regulations that would impact constitutionally guaranteed liberties as a basis for why a particular regulation is required. "You don't need" isn't a determination that I am often convinced is well established is correct in the first place. It's more like "I don't want you to...". Which is fine as a motivation, but it often goes unacknowledged in the debate. I'm not comfortable around guns either (outside of video games and violent movies). But I'm aware this is often why I might not be all that happy about someone else having one and not out of some dubious understanding of their needs that I'd be comfortable making into a law preventing them from attaining those needs. Their needs might include an enjoyment of owning and using firearms for some particular sport, for self-defence, for traditional value, and so on. These are not necessarily convincing "needs", or entirely accurate determinations that they made themselves either. But they do exist. They can often make for adequate grounds against for eliminating accessibility to particular kinds of firearms (on their own), or for many weapons accessories (most extended clips, flash suppressors, silencers, etc). As a result, gun control advocates advancing questions of "need" will tend to ignore that "need" is not a very salient point in the debate as it is subjective what that "need" is, and is rather immaterial in any regard if one concurs with a general proscription that the object whose need is being measured is a protected class of good via a constitutional amendment. (Note: I would argue many more things than firearms fall into this category as protected private actions and forms of property, including most of our vice crimes like narcotics or various forms of sexual services, but firearms were at least mentioned in the constitution and for whatever reason the public often subscribes to a legal theory that if the government isn't expressly limited or prevented from doing something, it can do it).

On the one case where there seems to be an actual restriction, automatic machine guns, even that restriction comes out of a sort of circular basis. Machine guns are illegal effectively because it's not likely a civilian would have one. But civilians would not likely have one because they were made illegal decades ago during the height of Prohibition. There's a great deal of absurdity in comparing automatic machine guns designed to fire hundreds of rounds per minute, often high powered rounds at long range at that, and semi-automatic rifles that are often called "machine guns" based on their similar appearance. One is clearly more lethal and dangerous than the other. So. There's a better reason available for why a machine gun is illegal of course, in the same way that a civilian can't get a rocket launcher, artillery rounds, tanks, or gunships for private use. Namely it serves little purpose other than intimidation and destruction via violence or the threat of it and constitutes a significant danger to the peace and tranquility of a community. This is still true of other firearms to a degree, but making a functional distinction about actual military grade equipment has a way of pointing out that some, if not all or most, of that equipment is designed expressly for killing other human beings easily and in large numbers and this is a significant threat that ownership would likely only be for offensive purpose against other human beings and is often too impractical for use in other needs. For other fire arms it is more often appropriate or sufficient to say "you can have that, but don't walk around with it and start pointing it at your neighbours when talking to them" or "firing it without defensive cause in the town", and to some extent to provide legal restrictions like "we do not trust you to have that because you have committed violent acts in the past for which you have been arrested and convicted of." Although our restrictions over gun ownership via felonies leads to ridiculous problems in many states because of what is classified as a felony in the first place, and who gets convicted of such, there's some reasonable basis in making these specific distinctions where there's less of a clear basis in attacking "need" more broadly.

That ultimately all becomes more an argument over use instead of need. Rather than arguments over need, I think the much stronger case for gun control is made by establishing that we have a gun culture problem that generates an unreasonable amount of gun-related violence. Some of that violence, in some places quite a lot of it, is generated by other factors than the mere existence of the weapons being used. Gang violence resulting from black market disputes over market share in illicit goods or services for example. That has little to do with guns in the abstract and more to do with other dubious legal pursuits of the state (usually narcotics). In examining this as an actual problem within our midst, we might also become aware of the gun problem in suicides; in that suicide by gun is far more common and far more deadly than murder or assault by gun. This too is a trail of carnage. When this is understood to be an actual and very large/complicated problem, what we find is that there might still be appropriate, even legally accessible, state reactions, but they probably won't have as much to do with regulating "assault weapons" or flash suppressors. Which are at best cosmetic ways of firing pellets of metal at high speed into living tissue rather than a significant contributing factor to the violence and blood spilled. They might have more to do with why people are using these weapons aggressively in the first place.

We might instead modify the way we prosecute, arrest, and impound property in the form of illicit vices. We might increase the availability of and augment the way we treat mental illness and disturbances. I'd be very cautious about tying gun ownership rights to said illness and treatments, most likely because the result would be fewer people with guns or who want guns getting treatment. Here I don't think either the NRA or liberals opposing them have any idea what they're talking about. We might increase or establish federal or state taxes on mind-altering substances; alcohol especially or through decriminalised or legal markets for narcotics. We might find ways to encourage weapon safety through offering basic training courses in exchange for registration or manufacturing companies could be installing or providing security features on weapons. We might work to reduce crime in areas that people no longer feel a "need" to be armed in the first place and would not purchase a weapon for that purpose of self-defence and in time decrease the cultural reverence attached to them. We might talk more about why we have a cultural medium that is more comfortable with violence than with saying certain words or with nudity. I think all three have a place in culture and cultural depiction, but the current comfort with violence relative to sexuality is absurdly puritanical. Why, we might ask, is it that we ourselves are so inclined to consume that media? Again, I'm not convinced it is a problem that we do so, but it does us little good to point fingers in a taxing blame game rather than look in the mirror once in a while and re-evaluate.

These are all complicated ways of getting at the problem. But all of them are likely to have much larger impacts on gun related violence than restricting "assault weapons", and various other proposals based upon "need".

We might also acknowledge that the largest cause of violence by choice of weapon, even among mass shooting events for which we often find gun control a topic de jour, is easily concealed handguns; a variety of guns so prolific in this country that there are at least half as many as there are citizens. Any legislative attempt to restrict these runs into some practical problems. First, there's so many available that it would take decades or hundreds of billions of dollars to reduce that number to a manageable level that it would even be possible to track or be reasonably certain who possesses or desires the possession of such weapons rather than through a grey market as now. Second, restricting handguns in some way is incredibly unpopular with the public (and even less popular after a major shooting event, even if a handgun was the primary weapon used). Third, it appears that home or local manufacture of weapons might be a near-term possibility via 3D printing and other assembler technologies that are decreasing in cost, making the regulation and control of weapons even less likely to be a centrally controlled matter. Some of these arguments apply equally to the question of restricting large capacity magazines, a popular state level restriction adopted in the wake of mass shootings.

And then, finally, the point of this exercise. It's unlikely to stand up to a Supreme Court challenge to make most varieties of restrictions upon handguns in particular a legal method of regulation. Because there's a pretty good case out there being made that such types of restrictions violate the Constitution and that case has won at the Supreme Court level already.

While I'm quite happy to have the conversations about efficacy and effectiveness, I'm not sure how people get past the "it's illegal for the government to do X" problem. Even good or well-intentioned ideas are restricted by these barriers, at least intended to be so restricted at any rate. And in this case, there are recent federal rulings and some not-so-recent that point away from the argument that many varieties of proposed restrictions could be legally interpreted in a manner that allows them to be used. And this is a major flaw in much liberal hand-wringing about firearms in that it often supposes the legal interpretation that the 2nd amendment is largely a device about tyranny and state militias, and thus a mostly quaint artifact of the 18th and 19th centuries perhaps, is the correct and only interpretation available and in wide use amongst legal scholars or the general public. I am disposed by some level of personal disgust to agree that this is a mostly correct legal and historical interpretation and that the historical capacity of the public to overthrow its government is much diminished in an aging country of 300 million citizens to be laughably improbable as an event worth considering in laying out our legal boundaries anyway.

But. I do not find my disgust to be informative about what the legal and moral rights of others shall be either and do not find it persuasive that these other interpretations must be wrong or inherently flawed by this particular variety of gun-clinging culture or some such with only that objection to raise. I do think it is sufficient to be questioning of that culture, curious of it, and if possible to act coercively in a private manner to encourage others to avoid the "need" or want of firearms. That's a process largely consisting of conversation or unwritten rules enforced by socially binding norms; norms which we have done little to create or foster amongst people who are not inclined to find guns discomforting and by the failure to do so have rendered many attempts at the federal or state level to adopt what may be perceived publicly or broadly as reasonable restrictions on weapons sales to be futile and abandoned.

Without talking to such people in the language of their adopted views on these issues, and abandoning the questions of need in a legal sense before having made the cultural argument, I would be very skeptical that any meaningful advances will be made on the social problem of violence and could easily see that what cosmetic methods are passed to deal with it will be either ineffective, overturned, or do more harm than good making these efforts rather pointless wastes of political energy.

There is naturally some contradiction in conservative claims on gun control as well, in that they advance an "originalist" logic to the documents but are often dismissive of that fact the documents have had to evolve based on changes in technology and social pressures that did not exist in the 18th century. Guns and human settlement were very different objects over 200 years ago in the same way that phones were very different 35 years ago. We should expect that any such regulations or restrictions that may have existed or were deemed appropriate in that time would be less so now.

We do not now have a culture that is likely to need to overthrow its government by force, nor a population broadly inclined to do so or to support movements to do so. Secession by states or cities is not a heavily backed item on the political agenda even in the various Southern states that still seem by rhetoric to want to fight the Civil War again. In Texas petitions to this effect received less than 1% of the state's population. While polls misleadingly portray a more robust population in favor than this, they still receive a small plurality (less than a quarter of those polled typically). Violent revolution, or even peaceful revolt, is even less supported. Various fringe to mainstream political groups agitating for radical adjustments in current policies such as the Free State Movement, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, Greenpeace, and so on do not attract broader popular support and indeed, are often perceived or portrayed as annoying and incoherent political brands rather than substantive responses to the actual political problems concerning the average person/voter. As a result, I do not think the notion that somehow we are about to fight a war against our own government(s) is a compelling reason, though nor is it a necessary one, to prevent various laws to be adopted. I do think it is a sufficient reason to question the arsenals that the government has deployed or made available to local and state police forces, and why it is that they require and receive heavy machine guns or armored vehicles in small towns dotting the country. But that's a somewhat different question than what sort of gun a person may purchase, or what requirements we would have placed upon them to do so.

That conservatives or the NRA can rush to this argument; that some crucial number of home-owning men with rifles is all that stands between America as a free country and the imposition of a tyrannical dictatorship is a flag-waving piece of nonsense that does little to aid their cause in the debate either. It provides the misguided impression that we live in a far more dangerous country than we actually do. Most of the people pushing for gun rights do not live in dangerous neighborhoods beset by violence (some do) and we are so vanishingly unlikely to be attacked by foreign powers directly that such a well-armed public would be an asset rather than the current liability it is often seen as. It provides the impression that only these rights relating to weapons ownership are worth standing up for and fighting against attempts to oppress them. While other rights such as the freedom from unreasonable searches, rights to a trial by jury, or the capacity to speak freely or worship freely (or not) are often sought to be suppressed or abandoned by the same groups of people along with "lesser" rights like access to voting or the hiring and firing decisions of business owners vis a vis immigrants and migrant workers. There are certainly Constitutionally or morally consistent conservatives who will readily defend the right of say, a Muslim to attend a mosque, an atheist to agitate peacefully, or blacks or Latino citizens access to vote, and also to not be detained and harassed without reasonable suspicion (read: more than just it's a young darker skinned male) by police and other security forces.

But these are not the people they send to office to enact policy. And by that process it presents a position that looks very much like a cultural island where so long as gun ownership as a basic right is preserved, other freedoms may be freely eliminated by the state. And indeed may be enthusiastically eviscerated along the way. It would be trivial for a tyrant to co-opt such armed bands into whatever mobile oppression system they would desire to rule with and to be used against whomever they wished to use it against. Indeed, one could argue that's what we are already doing with police forces being armed to the teeth, ostensibly for counter-terrorism, but really to make aggressive raids over compliance with often petty regulations and conduct shake-downs in grey-zone regulation or against otherwise non-violent citizens. Whether the appropriate response to a well-armed government is to demand a well-armed citizenry seems ludicrous given the propensity for violence against the state being so low and the dangers still quite real. The appropriate response is most likely to call for a less-well-armed government.

Whatever we are left with at the end of this is not necessarily great and wise policy. Maybe we could restrict sales at certain third party access points or require certain information in background checks. Maybe we would restrict the sale of video games (also hasn't held up in court rulings though). Maybe we would restrict the size of magazines one could use for ammunition. Maybe we would do none of those things. And so on.

For me though, the only good and relevant outcome of all of that would be there might be a pause in the volume of screaming people do about how holy they are about some legal right granted and guaranteed them hundreds of years before their birth and how awful their opponents are for supposedly attacking that right, for this or that reason.

Both of you have no idea what you sound like.

And it's something like this. 

Free speech and other things.

I've written quite a lot about the intersection of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Including on a related subject, the likely SCOTUS rulings impacting the legality of marriage rights applying to homosexual couples. 

To repeat the essential point: people telling you that your beliefs are flawed, impractical, immoral, or otherwise critical of them is not the same as the government preventing you from practicing those beliefs. Nor is such coercive pushback the same as a "chilling" effect when, say, an employer fires someone for statements that are likely unpopular under that directive. As we saw with the same kerfuffle over Chik-Fil-A and the reactions now of various companies and advertisers to the Great American Waterfowl Scenario, there are lots of places in the market, and other employers might not care or may actively support the voicing of certain unpopular views. These are not that unpopular of views even, a large plurality of Americans share the core view being expressed that homosexuality is to be deemed a sin, and thereby a wrongful action on some level. I do not find their reasoning or evidence persuasive that it need be punished or held to a lesser legal standard, but we cannot exactly hand wave away the multitudes and they will maintain their controversial stance on this issue for at least the better part of the next decade (at which point the demographics of aging will make it less of an issue in polite conversation, public debate, and political footballs).

What interested me more than the bizarre conflation of free expression with the right to a particular platform to make that expression (eg, no one has a right to a TV show), was the bizarre conflation that somehow this was at all a Constitutional question, and by extension, that there were Constitutional claims being made by people who hold a much lower esteem to the Constitution when it (actually) accounts for other rights and values as though there were some kind of "we love this document more!" contest being run. Because in my somewhat outsider perspective politically, I'd have to say that much of the time, both sides hate the document for the inconveniences it presents to the agendas they would enact. Or blatantly ignore it and enact said agendas anyway. Possibly one side hates more of the document. I might concede this at least (and I might note it's usually the right that has a disdain for the 14th amendment, judicial independence, and basically any amendment after the 2nd, plus sometimes the 1st). But neither side of debates is immune to it and both sides too often use the document as some kind of talisman rather than an interpretative basis for what sorts of laws are justified on moral and efficacy grounds.

There's two rather obvious places this intersects most often: gun control and abortion. In both cases, the opposing views take a position that effectively wills away the constitutional interpretations of the other side as completely irrelevant, despite sometimes long-standing legal precedents and rulings and often decades if not centuries of political philosophy written on related subjects from which to draw upon these distinct schools of thought and practice. I intend to write at length on each such that one can select their interest of outrage or vigorous nodding along from here. The curious angle though is the defense of "liberty" being used as a cause while often ignoring what those guaranteed liberties are or that opposing sides in a controversial issue present arguments also based upon essential liberties.

16 December 2013

And the NSA continues

Fuck Hoover. As the old joke goes. 

I had to watch that 60 Minutes segment mostly because I have less informed friends who would watch it and ask me questions, because they seem to know I follow this stuff very much more closely. So I'd prefer to know what was going on in their heads ahead of time or alongside. They have lives, so I can't say that I blame them. 

It was completely anodyne and came off very much as an ad for the NSA rather than a critical journalistic piece. But then, this is 60 Minutes, and good luck to anyone finding adversarial journalism there. Or as it used to be known: journalism. I don't have very much to say about the actual piece because nothing really controversial was actually discussed (none of the thorny legal questions came up as it was simply asserted it was in fact legal, none of the allegations that the program was used on various groups, reporters, or political figures came up, and so on). This isn't surprising. The only reason a high profile reporting group is allowed access to the NSA is because it is known they won't ask challenging pushback questions in the first place (or risk revoking their access). This is also why the piece included a 5 or 6 minute detour to advertise the NSA's cyberwarfare missions or how cool it is that they have a vault with broken codes from foreign countries, isn't that neat. And so on. Because if you're not actually going to cover any of the issues pressing against the NSA, it's kind of a short interview that needs such filler to it. 

The biggest problem I have with the interview was Alexander's closing argument makes no sense, at least to me. There's no demonstrated basis for how curtailing the various domestic surveillance powers and techniques of the NSA would in some way prevent detection of potential terrorist threats (imaginary or not) from bubbling up in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and so on. You know. All the places the NSA's mandate is pretty clearly not going to be impeded from operating. I have a hard time following how A affects Z here or maybe how 2-0=0. It's not a very clear bright line. It's just asserted that somehow their mission of monitoring foreign threats and governments (because it is a DoD operation) would be negatively effected if any of their existing powers and operations are shut down or reduced in any way. And that's the end of the piece. No where in the piece was it established that a) such foreign operations are being threatened with reduction, even by various NSA critics, or b) that such operations domestically help us investigate foreign threats of terrorism or sabotage or so on. Maybe if they hadn't wasted several minutes talking about vaults and code breakers and recruitment and solving rubik's cubes, we'd have some critical examination of that question. 
(also a minute and half is pretty slow from what I gather of rubik's cubes these days, there are lots of people who can solve any cube in seconds, and some who would do it faster than he did... blindfolded. So that's cute that 60 Minutes thought that would be impressive.)

I'd have to agree the haystack problem is insufficiently discussed. I think it's related to a question about "how does this actually work, you know, to catch bad guys", in so far as I'm highly skeptical that it does. But even the people advancing the argument that it does actually work, don't really seek to address this question of how to prevent themselves from drowning in information. It looked quite sterile and simple there on their demonstrations for the piece. And maybe it is. Surely there are very smart people who think on this problem.  But it's a very large problem with the approach of gathering this information in the first place and its a very large amount of information they are gathering. And to me, its not like the hits we have taken (the Boston bombing, the underwear bomber, etc), were either a) stopped, or b) sorted out from the haystack in time to stop them when in retrospect there appear to have been clues. You know like people shouting up and down that this guy is a terrorist. And not just people, but like a guy's own father. Things like that. I'm a little fuzzy on how that kind of information, reasonably solid normal human intelligence, can't be followed up with using tools like this kind of surveillance of gathering someone's metadata, checking phone and email, etc, but rather that the system must operate only in the other direction, to gather the metadata and be able to tell us afterward what a terrible person this person must have been. 

One of the major problems I have with that problem is that it also doesn't really tell us what they think the needles are. We could assume, perhaps mostly accurately, that these are needles of actual potential threats, potential terrorists or pirates or hackers abroad or attempting to attack us in some way. Or we could assume, as with the PATRIOT act, that these are powers that are available for use on terrorism, but which we have largely sidetracked to do other unrelated things (like go after drug dealers, which appears to be the most common use of the patriot acts various police powers, or the various Homeland Security provided grants that police departments get to militarize their forces). And maybe under a less scrupulous authority, if we for some reason still trust the current one, such powers might be used for less noble deeds. We could say that assumption that they will is foolish, or we could point out that they've done so before, investigating political rivals, political dissidents, potential communists, reporters, and that it's likely they're still doing it. 

For me it sidesteps the important legal questions, whether Smith actually applies to what they're doing, whether scooping up information on international data pipelines without a warrant is a violation of domestic surveillance laws (or at least an evasion of the spirit of those laws), to question whether it's effective or whether they're using it for explicitly non-terrorism related purposes in some kind of vast conspiracy. But given that many, many people seem quite comfortable to sidestep the 4th amendment and risk having domestic intelligence organs decide on whether or not you pose some kind of threat to national security, or at least some kind of annoyance for deciding to speak out and report against it, I have to deal also with the effect and strategic questions of just how valuable this kind of thing actually is. 

I'm still not satisfied that it helps. And neither are well-placed critics, people who used to be in the intel community or critics who sit on oversight committees, and at times even, the FISA courts themselves. So. Yeah. Thanks 60 Minutes for that 15 minute advertisement for the NSA. I'm sure some people are willing to go work there now. But you didn't really help us understand the terms of the debate, why it is happening, and over what. 

Update: It now appears at least one federal judge agrees with me, if not several on the FISA courts as well who are increasingly skeptical that the NSA isn't just lying to them flatly about what it has been up to with the authority they granted it. 

06 December 2013

A disconnected series of thoughts

1) I'm not sure what NSA supporters are expecting from their critics. But here's what I'd summarize as the most plausible cases for criticism:

NSA has lied or deceived Congress/FISA in the past and on a somewhat ongoing basis throughout the series of revelations of its activities. This should lend more credence to critics who are skeptical of claims defending what it is doing on the grounds that what it is doing... is not what it says it is doing in the first place. This position does not require that it is doing whatever it is that critics are afraid it might do, only that it is not transparent to the means of oversight appointed to make sure it behaves such that it is possible to imagine it going more rogue than critics already believed and know it to be doing.

It also lends some credence to allowing private but ostensibly "American" technology companies to disclose the type and number of requests they receive and perhaps to more deeply encrypt their international communities in response to NSA hacking. And in effect defeating the purpose of those efforts in order to protect their customers here and abroad.

The NSA had been running a massive and expanding intelligence programme for almost a decade but hadn't compartmentalized information considered of a crucial nature such that a hired contractor with limited job experience could walk off with huge amounts of data and program information. Had Snowden's interest actually been espionage/treason of the variety many of his most fervent detractors imagine it to be, the damage done could be far, far worse than disclosing this to friendly governments and their people via the press. This suggests the people running the system either don't know what's going on perhaps because they don't care and don't need to, or that they can't know because it's too big to be run efficiently. Or that too much is classified (the argument critics make). There are millions of people with some level of classified access in government or engaged in work related to the government and some hundreds of thousands with access on a level similar to that of Mr Snowden. This is only possible if too much is being classified in the first place and it leaves open the question of how accessible this information actually is when it may be of greatest use given that we have had fairly normal police work style leads on the various attacks that actually occurred under this counter-terrorism regime that were apparently not followed up on within this vast architecture.

It's very possible they built something because they could out of the considerable available resources, and not because they had any particular use for it.

NSA critics maintain that if these programmes are in anyway necessary, there should be something to show for it. Critics of the programme in a position to evaluate it (eg, Ron Wyden or Mark Udall) are not satisfied by the claims being advanced that dragnet surveillance of citizen's metadata and other massive filtering and algorithmic data searches of internet and cellular communication were in any significant way essential to stop attacks, in the past, now, or in the future. Unless these well-placed critics on the intelligence committees, as well as related critics like Sensenbrenner (Patriot Act author), are assuaged and assured that there are significant safeguards of American privacy rights in place, and that these are even necessary utilities to find and identify threats via terrorism (or related forms of disruption perhaps), less informed critics should likewise be skeptical of the "necessary for national security" claims that prevent further disclosures of successes, or failures, of these programmes for a fuller Congressional and public oversight. The "if you knew what I know" argument can only go so far.

A note: events stopped in other countries are not sensible defences of spying on potentially millions of Americans, or for that matter, millions of citizens in other countries. Both seem like enormous wastes of energy and money and time. A second note, spying on foreign leaders, allied or not, I don't care. I don't imagine most critics do. It's not gentlemanly or sporting of us, but that's the game. More to the problem here, it also doesn't seem to have greatly advantaged us in diplomatic pressures within the game of nations and the trade and alliances spawned of it.

Maybe we have incompetent diplomats along with incompetent spymasters.

2) Path of Exile is basically what I might have wanted Diablo 3 to be like. I think I'd to like to see the kickstarter/pay for frills method of game development used more often. It's essentially a mix of all 3 Diablo games but not anywhere near as dumbed down as D3 was. I particularly like: can use skills with any character provided you have the requirements to equip it, which is a throwback to D1 (with a twist), and that the economy isn't gold related. Also, removing the level only requirements from D3 on equipment, with a need to build up stats to use a better weapon or armor. And that it then matters, sometimes a lot, what weapons or armor is used. D3's silly "I'm going to use a spear or a sword or an axe or a wand... to perform the exact same attacks" was just ridiculous.

3) The next Spider Man movie looks awful. Between the trailer, the graphics, and that Orci's involved, I'm skipping it as it looks quite shoddy and messy. Between Lindelof and Orci, there's some seriously horrible writers out there getting major jobs in Hollywood, combined they may have single-handedly destroyed both Star Trek and the Alien series of films for a while by reducing both to incomprehensible nonsense. In a related comic book film note, I've no idea why Wonder Woman doesn't get her own film to start off in and instead is just eye candy for the next Superman movie.

04 December 2013

A word of advice

As a random thought from an event over the past week. 

If one is a Christian (I am not, obviously), when presenting oneself at the average American suburban home in the design of speaking to a stranger of their religion in a proselytizing manner, one should not need to open with something like: 

"I know you probably have your own religion", with the implication being that this is probably not a Christian you are speaking to. This is America. Most of Americans are. So you will sound like an idiot who won't know what you are talking about to be even worth talking to about your supposed good book simply because you are not paying attention to who lives around you. I had to restrain myself from laughing at that opening line once I deduced that's what he had said (my brain was slowly getting around to the idea there was a man holding church literature out to me as though I should take it). 

I get the impression from this that there are sects of Christendom who seem to believe the secular frontier is far more advanced than people who are on the secular frontier know it to be. Most of you still believe not just in Christianity but in the "personal god" that appears basically nowhere in that text (theologians will say so and try to pretend that atheists don't know what they're talking about when they attack this concept). It's not going anywhere, your faith. I would like to be able to say otherwise. But it's just not. And pretending that it has, or will, well you then you just look like you have no comprehension of reality and the actual power and spread of religious folks like yourself. I know you're trying hard, I can see that. Try in a different direction. Really. Because you sound like a complete moron. I'm trying to be helpful here. 

Following it up with "there are some people who don't even believe god is real" was just bonus gravy for setting me up for shutting the door on the "yes, I'm one of those, thanks. Now go away." I will talk to people about religion, about dogma, and about theology, unlike many atheists. Who frankly find these topics too tedious to put up with in the daily arena and find better things to do with their time. I find the psychological effects of various rituals interesting. I find the mythologies involved amusing. I find its mastery over thousands of years of us-them tribalist dimensions of thought to be disturbing but interesting in its implications for our other moral behaviors (like political ideologies, political parties, and nationalism), in that religion like the others occasionally manages to start something useful at least within those communities, at the cost of creating rivals and outgroups. So while I don't find the arguments compelling or logical, I can enjoy having them with, some. Not all, but some. I find I upset many religious people for one reason or another. I find there are some notions of dogma (but not the high-level theology), that I find quite simply offensive and harmful to the human condition and its necessary moral dimensions for getting along and existing and pointing that out can be annoying. 

What I won't do is have such an argument on my doorstep with a stranger who has crafted a prepared speech with an empty head when I'm probably trying to make a lunch. Food wins over boring rehearsed metaphysical arguments. Open with something a little less absurd. Try asking if you're really that unsure of your community. 

17 November 2013

Quick thoughts on Thor

2....that is.

1) It was better than Iron Man 3, which puts it behind the Avengers and Iron Man 1 in the Avengers series, and easily the "best" blockbuster film of this year I'd say. Captain America is probably better than I gave it credit for at the time, but that's about the only other one in the running in this list. The rest are kind of meh.

2) Action was often very clever rather than just pointless devastation (unlike the Superman movie, which was terrible).

3) Some throwbacks to other sci-fi films (Star Wars references mostly).

4) Didn't take itself as seriously as the first Thor movie. This is basically why the Avengers and first Iron Man worked too, plenty of humor, both deliberate and in the meta-form of poking at the absurdities of comic book heroes with ridiculous powers. Thor's entrance into a London flat and subway were both hilarious, also Mjolnir following him around between the realms.

5) Spent more time on alien worlds than Earth. Thor movies should revolve mostly around Thor doing Thor things and Earth is just kind of a place that sometimes matters. It's also more interesting to look at Asgard and the other realms. Taylor seems to have figured out how to draw up and use fantasy sets from doing Game of Thrones, so that helped.

6) Thor has better and more interesting villains (especially Loki) than most other comic book story lines  in the Avengers set, which often has rather lame villains. His dynamic with Loki is really fun by now. Kurse was quite good as a badass.

1) Natalie Portman doesn't seem to want to actually be in these movies. Fortunately for her, for a good chunk of this one, she's basically asleep anyway. This was probably the biggest detraction from the first two Batman movies too was the labored love interest plots didn't have any chemistry and seemed just thrown in. (Catwoman in the last one worked). The Thor-Jane relationship functions too much on the "tell not show" theory that doesn't work in a movie. Stark-Potts works a little better because it works more on a show-n-tell routine. Even the Spider Man movie last year had a better chemistry formed around this part of its plot.

1a) Hopkins doesn't seem to want to be in these either.

2) Plot overall was kind of incoherent and messy. The writing and humor and clever action sets makes up for it but stopping to think about it, it just gets messy fast. Why exactly are these guys trying to destroy the universe again? Why is Odin an asshole/idiot suddenly rather than the man with a plan (bitter old guy?) Thor doesn't seem to bother figuring it out either so maybe we shouldn't ourselves.

3) I'm not sure what to make of the Guardians of the Galaxy tie-in. I assume that's needed to play the Thanos card eventually but I'd think they could work it in somewhere in a Thor movie.

07 November 2013

Virginia, and why politics is often about things people tell you it is.


I brought this up in a debate forum recently.

Basically the point is this: abortion is, for all intents and purposes, an irrelevant political topic in most elections. Republicans' problem with abortion has been they have recently run a disproportionate number of unskilled political figures who have said things on the subject, or tangentially related subjects like female anatomy and rape, that are well outside the political mainstream and treated harshly by voters (as they rightly should be). But their fundamental position on abortion, while disagreeable and in my view wrong, isn't a dead weight anchor that prevents them from winning or causes defeat in elections by annoying women in particular. They will not need to adjust it to "win back women" or to win elections overall. They will mostly need to shut up about it.

A closer case can be made for how Republican candidates talk about women (binders full of them!, or Romney's equally repulsive and stupid subsequent claim that women were bought off with free birth control) or have taken positions such as invasive ultrasounds being mandated for abortion procedures which are unpopular. But these issues are likely unpopular with men as well given that abortion politics are basically the same across gender, and at times that men have even evinced higher levels of pro-choice attitudes than women. In the superficial way in which most people, regardless of gender, consume political information and news, gaffes and extreme views are likely to attract attention and perhaps sway opinion when they are inevitably highlighted by press coverage and negative advertising. We could probably say that Cuccinelli's views on invasive ultrasounds or statements and record on sodomy and so on through the sexual panoply of political footballs for him to fumble created an overall attitude and perspective which a) annoyed many putative donors to his campaign and prevented him from raising money and enthusiasm outside of his base, b) annoyed a significant portion of voters into voting against him without regard for the opponent and c) allowed for easier attack advertising by his opponent by using his own words and record to attack him. Allowing a candidate to win an election without really providing a significant platform because they draw large numbers of voters who "hate you" instead should be a cardinal sin in politics. One can argue this is sort of what Obama did in 2008 by running against the Bush legacy and providing a lot of insubstantial promises about a proposed agenda, and that it is also what Romney attempted to do in 2012 but was far less skilled politically and charismatically to pull it off (and/or had poor political views). But the point is that saying dumb things or having a bad or unpopular record on a few issues is a bad idea if winning the election matters as it places a big handicap on your potential vote. This is true regardless of whether the subject is women, abortion, the environment (another issue that annoyed donors), homosexuals, or more simply, the damn roads and traffic.

Back to the abortion point.

There are several reasons it is irrelevant politically.
- Most people do not care, or hold relatively vague positions (that sometimes contradict each other). This is why I consider many Democrats to be effectively pro-life/anti-choice simply because they end up not opposing or even backing many restrictions on accessibility which to the uninterested or uninformed voter seem "reasonable", but which offer limited utility at best (and are unambiguously dumb in most cases). The vast majority of the public holds these squishy mentalities about abortion, with it existing in an uncomfortable moral and political space that they would rather pretend isn't there. When most people do not want to care about an issue in the first place, it is easy to ignore it altogether or say as little as possible or necessary about it and move on.
- The people who do care already have their minds made up, and are generally informed activists who vote on the issue in a more concerted way. They will enter an election cycle already knowing who they will vote for or against based on party heuristics or actual political attention and knowledge. Even extreme statements are unlikely to move their positions because those statements will simply confirm what they already know about the candidates.
- Political opinion on abortion isn't moving or trending significantly and doesn't demonstrate many demographic splits moving forward from age and generational shift. This distinguishes it from other social issues like the drug war (sort of) or gay marriage, where there are huge generational gaps politically that political figures must address or navigate, and requires some amount of attention in more elections because the shifts overall are large and positive in one direction (or another I suppose if one is less favorable to either than I am).
- Extreme statements are rare, that's why they are "newsworthy". Most politicians know not to say that they might consider rape/incest exemptions to be a problem. I personally consider these politicians who violate this third rail commandment of politics to be at least morally consistent, though I disagree with their moral basis and would oppose them for reason #2. Most voters do not and will not give them this credit. Most politicians know which abortion restrictions can be presented with some level of acceptability to a given population (parental notification, sometimes waiting periods, late term restrictions or bans), and which cannot (invasive ultrasounds, complete bans shuttering all or many abortion clinics). Polling data on these issues is readily available and has been relatively consistent for a couple of decades now. Political figures who wish to advance among conservatives can advertise their pro-life concerns but know they can accomplish nothing. This is what the previous GOP gubernatorial candidate in Virginia did (McDonnell), and what various candidates did not do (Cuccinelli, Akin, Mourdock, etc).
- If an extreme statement is not made, abortion will probably not surface as a political issue in any given election. It will surface if it is on a ballot, or if there have been more extreme laws passed (and usually overturned in courts), but it will probably not rise above more serious voter concerns like the economy, health care, crime, war, etc. I do not recall abortion being a serious issue in 2012 for example.
- My general contention would be to agree with a thesis that any actual success in overturning Roe-Wade by conservatives would be a death knell to their position. I think the political/policy elite knows this and knows that they benefit far more in activism and funding from being perceived as a somewhat extreme position that can be more vaguely expressed as "abortion is bad" rather than having to defend other positions like "these women are bad for needing/wanting abortions", or more likely "these women are dead, or suffered some other lesser grievous injustice, from an inability to get a safe and legal abortion", arguments on which the general public does not share the pro-life attitude, or opposes it openly. This means that the general Republican party attitude is to express public support for pro-life causes, perhaps pass a few laws that can restrict access without much opposition, or perhaps pass a few token harsher laws to be overturned in court, complain loudly about the courts and their activism either way, and move on to other things leaving this issue in more or less the status quo that it has been in since the Clinton years.

I find the general thesis that women are motivated to vote on the basis of "lady parts" to be rather disturbing and incorrect. Or it at least should suggest there's some plausible theory that men are voting based on their penis, which seems more likely honestly. Women are just as likely, if not more so, to be confronted with economic challenges in a mixed economy such as finding a job, holding a job, or even starting a business, and likely have grave concerns about the quality of education for children (or themselves), the safety and accessibility of public roads, and so on. To assess the probability of voting on the basis of abortion alone as a significant "women's issue" is first to fail to recognize that women are not distinguished in their views on abortion and the accompanying moral and legal frameworks we have from men, and second to demean women as incapable of having significant political views on a broad range of issues.

At the state level, these politics on abortion are somewhat more or less aggressive, but Virginia is a pretty moderate state thanks to expanding DC suburbs, relative to say, South Dakota or Nebraska or Kansas or Texas or Mississippi. We could say that in this case, Republicans ran someone who offended this status quo, and women perhaps correctly recognized this and voted accordingly, and good for them. Or we could also point out that there were a bunch of transportation and economic issues in the state (along with health care) that still overshadowed public opinion on abortion, and that on these issues, Cuccinelli also seemed out of step to his state's voters. Which is not altogether unlikely either since women still identified these as more pressing issues for their vote.

And this is also not altogether unlikely since Republicans have had a great deal of trouble articulating their economic views or plans for development of infrastructure, or in general a governing philosophy rather than a rhetorical opposition to governing in the first place. I consider this their far greater problem for women and for all voters; that they don't relate on economic grounds what their proposed policies would do or could do for voters at a personal level. Obama, of all people the supposed socialist by their reckoning, was far better at this than Romney at explaining how markets could work for example in a practical way. It's far too much "we need to keep taxes low" without recognizing that for most Americans, taxes are quite low historically (and the main exception is people near the poverty line who can have incredibly high marginal rates on increased earnings). And voters in their infinite wisdom, reject this as an insufficient platform and an insufficient solution to their problems.

02 November 2013

How a libertarian is not in the Tea Party, and probably doesn't want to be included in the first place

I've long maintained that the Tea Party is essentially a movement of social conservatives/strong conservative Republicans who reacted rather late to the anti-Bush portions of the initial wave of Paul-ite types opposing the expansive state and executive powers and woke up to these issues upon the ascension of an opposing political figure (Obama) rather than out of some principled conscience. It has always reminded me of a costumed Halloween-Constitution Day theme that has gone on way too long rather than some vibrant anti-statist community that re-assures me I have fellow travelers wishing for a smaller or less invasive state as a broad goal.

Evidence to this effect has been presented in polls for a long time, that the core of the movement holds very strong socially conservative views, and that it is, for the most part, rather anti-libertarian, even sometimes on economic issues for which it is painted as stridently so.

This kind of poll is devastating to that effect. 

I will raise a number of points here (and then raise a few derivations on atheism too, since that concerns me as well).

1) Libertarians have very opposed views on social issues from the Tea Party or Republican party in general. They're virtually the opposite on legalising marijuana (71% for, compared to ~60% opposed), a higher rate than even Democrats and many liberals. They're about as pro-choice as everyone else rather than restrictive on abortion access and rights, and they're much more supportive of physician assisted suicide even than most people, much less conservatives. And finally they're opposed to restrictions on pornography (on the internet in particular). This suggests that candidates who have highlighted such conservative attitudes will not garner much libertarian support or enthusiasm, if not gain outright opposition. This is true regardless of whether the candidate has a D or an R next to them as many Democrats are pro-drug war or will support various restrictions on abortion, for example.

2) Gay marriage remained an outlier to this (roughly 60% opposed, less than Republicans/Tea Party types but much less support than other issues).

I have less of a philosophical appreciation for why this might be, since I am broadly supportive of gay marriage personally. Naturally I am bothered by this polling result and how it reflects upon "my" politics.

I have encountered fairly libertarian-leaning people who have implied that the state shouldn't be involved in marriage in the first place, as yet one more intervention they think is unnecessary. Philosophically there's a great deal of merit to that claim to avoid the state's interventions where ever possible, but practically and legally, it is absurd. Marriage is already defined by the state in too many ways through common law and legal codes to eliminate it in a broad stroke, and is so defined in ways that differ widely from "traditional" notions already (such as the easier availability of divorce) that concerns over protecting "traditional" marriages make little sense to me.

By contrast, similar private contracts made by homosexual couples (such as wills or custody assignments) are often violated or voided by states rather than upheld as the wishes and private arrangements of their citizens. This is a great injustice committed by the state, arguably greater than the injustice of having the state involved in marriage laws in the first place since all that does is standardize contracts which can still be easily amended for particular demands (but not all, since taxation and legal residency status aren't property rights individuals confer by right upon each other as individuals in contract). It might be better if we were to start from scratch avoiding the state interventions in a new system, that argument can be made. That's not the world we live in, where most of those interventions are broadly popular and will not be practically simple to divorce from the powers of the state. It does not impress me as a reason to oppose extending these same legal rights to homosexuals. I would be much more impressed by this argument if a) people making it were to describe specific or particular types of powers in marriage laws that they would prefer to see abolished, including some of those that benefit themselves, b) they would accede to a method of enforcement of these contracts that was less arbitrary in the first place as a means of acknowledging that their own arrangements would likely be respected and favorably treated while other people's might not be so honored, and c) how this method would differ from having the state enforce marriage contracts as it does already. And along with any of that, some evidence that the general public could be persuaded to support such amendments to the structure of marriage contracts or enforcements or already supports such changes. Mostly I just see this expressed as a platitude that the state shouldn't be doing it rather than as a course of action on how it would cease. Which is perhaps philosophically and rhetorically appealing but isn't an objection to amending the status quo arrangement in some modest way.

3) Libertarians seem to identify at least marginally with the Republican party anyway. I suspect this is from some affinity to economic rhetoric which is less hostile to markets and more hostile to regulation and taxes.

I'm not sure it has borne out much fruits however as Republicans have repeatedly and whole-heartedly embraced some foolishly anti-market or anti-economically sensible business-corporate handouts while in office, and have persisted in these habits (see the agriculture bill or transportation votes earlier this year) even as these supposedly anarchistic Tea Party representatives have taken offices. Some have more principled positions (Mike Lee's proposal on transportation and gasoline taxes is not terrible for example) but these are still the minority amongst both Tea Party types and Republicans in general. Other than keeping taxes relatively low but mostly incoherent, I'm not sure what policy victories Republicans can claim here. Opposition to the ACA/ObamaCare is related to this however and may be considered as a major issue of shared concern (given the overwhelming percentage of libertarians who supported a notion that much more health care should be devolved to the individual's economic concern and planning rather than existing as a basic right as liberals or communitarians might claim).

The main questions this raises for me are as follows:
a) Why do libertarians perceive Democrats as poorly as they do. Is this from the hostility of liberal commenters and editorials to libertarian politics and objections as a tribal affiliation (something which many conservatives, particularly social conservatives, often adopt as well)? Or is this from hostility to Democratic policy choices and preferences? Or from ignorance of the similarities of the two parties and their supporters on many issues?
b) It appears libertarians and Tea Party types generally see both Republicans and Democrats as being far more liberal than they actually are. I see both as much less liberal than they are believed to be by others of less libertarian persuasion, curiously. I'm left wondering why there isn't very much of a left-libertarian lean available in expression.
c) Why do libertarians not bow out entirely from Republican politics or, perhaps alternatively, take alliances of convenience with the "most" libertarian candidate running, regardless of whether this is a D or R candidacy, whoever promotes particularly liberty-based preferences in the most categories of importance to the individual voter and can thereby be worked with to advance those into policy changes or the abolition of existing policy. The assumption of both parties seems to be that people voting for libertarians are doing so out of a disaffection with Republicans or conservatives rather than to express a particular strain of policy desires. While that might be accurate for now, as Republicans are increasingly seen as old-white guys, and libertarians are mostly drawing from younger white guys, that may come to a change in the party's stance on some key issues or may come to an abandonment of the party in favor of Democrats who are more flexible on economic concerns or third party candidates who are often more inflexible but much closer to ideological policy preferences.

4) Libertarians had a very unfavorable view overall of immigration and immigrants. Since most of the libertarian leaning scholarship I encounter personally and libertarian leaning commentary on the subject of immigration I consume has a very, very positive view of immigration, both economically and personally/culturally/historically. Perhaps since I came up in a rather diverse group of friends and classmates, descended from recent immigrants in many cases my own views are less suspicious of "others". I suspect this overall trend has to do with the near-universal whiteness of libertarians and some sort of racial hostility to Latinos or Africans, and to a lesser extent various Asian migrants. What confuses is me though is that it is a much stronger hostility than is expressed by even Tea Party constituencies. I do not communicate much with the Ron Paul/Lew Rockwell types but they seem much stronger than I had thought amongst libertarian perspectives. This was disconcerting as it was one of the few negatives that was stronger among libertarians than conservatives.

5) Religion plays a big part in why Tea Party types and Republicans in general differ from libertarians. There's a huge percentage of both evangelicals AND unaffiliated "nones" involved versus the more communitarian Catholic population, but there are still fewer evangelicals than are affiliated with Republicans or the Tea Party. These means that while there are still plenty of "religious right" affiliated types within a given libertarian population, it's very different from the Tea Party or social conservative constituencies that make up larger portions of Republican voter blocs where most such persons see themselves as far right religious voters. This may also reflect the distinctions on social issues being a hands-off from government approach rather than a strict legal regime, a greater tolerance for "good-without-god" morality (than even the general population provides), and a generally less religious outlook governing their politics or perhaps even individual lives.

6) In a less related point, but one which I've raised before here. The population of Americans who express belief in a "personal god" in this poll is over 60%. While this percentage is perhaps lowered to a more tolerable level by excluding evangelical Protestants, it is still much higher than many European secular Democracies or the views of many theological scholars for that matter. Atheists are often told that this belief is limited to the outlandish worldview of the religious right, but this ignores that:
a) the religious right is a very large and substantial portion of the American population, and exerts considerable control over the politics and the subsequent laws and regulations of many states, or within states to the city/town/county level, and up to federal representatives via its ability to mobilize over activism on particular causes and issues and to attempt to hold elected officials to particular mandates over these causes and concerns. It is not an insubstantial percentage of people who really don't matter who are being argued with by atheists on the application of these beliefs to political policies, much less the application of scientific reasoning or empirical deductions about the problems that are faced by individuals and the institutions and social groups they construct (like nation-states). They are quite real and they are quite numerous and they are quite busy.
b) It is not so limited to only crazy-right-wingers as indeed many people guided by communitarian left-wing politics express similar attitudes. That population is probably still significantly larger than the population of libertarians or atheists taken as a whole and still expresses sentiments or broad philosophical agreement with many state interventions based upon religious beliefs. Even if they might oppose some of the more strident objects taken up by the religious right (like legal opposition to gay marriage or abortion say) they may take up often paternalistic sentiments about health or provisions to the poor in kind rather as a raw cash transfer on the basis that some god-figure wants them to set up the state thus instead of out of some empirical assessment that this or that approach could best help the poor or the sick.

I think much of this is that most religious people who hold a more modest or vague view when pressed either lie about holding this view but are far more comfortable with the notion of a personal entity as a deity in their daily lives or just don't hang out that often among more literal Biblical types who take this personal entity far more seriously and assume that they are a rarer commodity in the general public. This second explanation is fairly likely as many people are uncomfortable holding religious conversations anyway and are not extensively skilled in debating theological points or consistently applying them as a practice of their faith.

29 October 2013

NBA Preview 2013

I typically follow basketball more consistently than other sports. This season promises to be very interesting for several reasons. Several teams are tanking for highly regarded draft picks. A few teams are rising and presume to be competing for playoff spots after several (or more) years of mediocrity. And then there isn't quite as clear a contender for the championship but several very good teams (Miami is still probably the favorite, but they have more competition and looked exposed by the Spurs).

First off. I always set up a fantasy basketball team in a roto league. I don't do this for baseball because I keep a historical all-star league with normalised statistics with players going back to 1876 (and including major-minor leagues like the negro national league). I find it way more fun to draft Willie Mays than current players. I don't do this for football because I have no interest in following it any further than as a casual observer and because football fantasy leagues are much more like gambling than basketball. Basketball it is really easy to predict how good a player might be the next year. Which makes the having to adjust rosters more often factor pretty easy to compensate for. I typically compete for winning any league I'm in. Rondo's injury last year really hurt my chances. I was in first most of the year, and fell to third in the last month as I couldn't make up the assists and steals with PG by committee.

This is my team (I picked 8th).
PF Kevin Love
PG Deron Williams
C Brook Lopez
F Josh Smith
PF Ryan Anderson
G/F Andre Iguodala
C Marcin Gortat (the trade to Washington is great)
SG OJ Mayo
PG Isaiah Thomas
SF Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
G Brandon Knight
C Nerlens Noel (stashed for blocks).
PF Elton Brand

I expect I should be doing pretty well in assists and threes and percentage stats. I'm worried about points and rebounds a bit. I think blocks or steals will be okay.

So actual teams. Over/Unders will be after the team followed by statgeek projections. Plus would be whether I think they're an over, minus for unders.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division
Brooklyn (52.5+) I'd say will actually be somewhat worse regular season than projected as they rest the starters (they seem to be around 55 wins). But probably still around 52-54 wins and a tough out for Miami or Chicago. This is now my team with KG on it. Probably the 3 or 4 seed.
New York (48.5-): Projects around 47. I think this is also high. I think they have chemistry issues and fall to around 43, but if Chandler stays healthy, 47 is also quite possible. This is not a team that I'd expect to win a first round series.
Toronto (36.5-): Depends on the impending Rudy Gay trade (DeRozan might also be traded). Projects around 38. I'd say 33. If they get a good haul for these trades, it will mostly be in picks or younger players.
Boston (27.5=): Depends on how quickly Rondo comes back. Projects to 27. This is probably about right. Even if they are trying to tank, there's a lot of bad teams.
Philadelphia (16.5-): I don't think they are in any danger in breaking the worst league record. But. Getting to 19 (projected), not so much.

Central Division
Chicago (56.5+): Projects to 52. I think this is low. I put them around 58. Probably second to Miami for title contention. Their defense should be insane. A couple of trades are out there that could push them past Miami (Boozer or Deng could be dealt).
Indiana (54.5-): Projects to 52. Sounds about right. They upgraded their bench. I think their ceiling is 55. They seem to be one of the most consistent projections. Defense should still be very, very good.
Detroit (40.5+): Projects to 41. Probably low. But it depends a lot on how the new pieces mesh (and if Monroe and Drummond can play together). I think this is a playoff team at least in the East and around 45 wins. Will block a lot of shots.
Cleveland (40.5-): Projects to 40. Really depends if they get more than 80 games from Andy and Bynum combined and Kyrie plays a full season finally (I'm doubtful). I do not at all like the Bennett pick. So. Probably 40 is fine. They're not going to be much better than that even if healthy though. Ceiling looks like 45. I'm not expecting much defense (even with the coaching chance, nobody on this team has a history of playing D) and Mike Brown is just a dreadful offensive coach. Which is not good with a team that has some weapons that need plays.
Milwaukee (28.5+): Projects to 31. Again, probably low. But not by much. This or Cleveland look like the 8th seed (with the Cavs a little better). Probably 36 wins.

Miami (61.5-): Projects at 59. About right. They did get some size in Oden maybe to help out with Hibbert or Chicago/Brooklyn in the playoffs. Assuming he is healthy. The loss of Miller hurts. Still probably the favorite to win it all though.
Atlanta (39.5-): Projects at 41. Probably not a lock. Because I think they are breaking up the team and trading Horford or Millsap. They have the talent for 45 win team or so right now. But it's not going anywhere either with these pieces. If they do blow it up, they will do it early and tank to 30 or so wins. If they start out hot, they probably won't blow it up but won't go anywhere.
Washington (40.5+): Projects at 37. I think this team is better, with the Gortat trade and a healthy Wall. Probably 6-7th seed in the East. I like them a lot for around 44 wins.
Charlotte (26.5=): Projects at 28. Probably a little high, I'd say closer to 25. Kemba and Al might be worth something at least though.

Playoff Teams
New York

Western Conference
Oklahoma City (52.5+): Projects around 54. Depends on how soon Westbrook is back to being Westbrook. They have some major holes that require a trade or two to compensate for. Durant should have a monster first half.
Denver (45.5=). Projects at 45. I think this is about right. They made some very dumb moves offseason. Koufos trade was lame. Iggy's gone. Their defence is major league downgraded. Gallinari is hurt to start the year. All bad things.
Minnesota (41.5+): Projects to 43. If healthy, this could be a 46-48 win team. Their D is still troubled, but they will score.
Portland (38.5+): HUGE upgrades to their horrible bench last year. I'm not sure why they only project at 38. They won 33 last year with injuries late to key players and no bench. I don't think they're much better than 42-44 wins, but they shouldn't be only 5 wins better than last year with this roster.
Utah (25.5+): Tanking. Somehow projects to 30 anyway. They have still some good size players and Burke could be good. Hard to project how they will do because they have the highest turnover in minutes from last year and a lot of rather useless vets and young players with high potential but no track record. I think they're good for 27.

Clippers (56.5=), Projects at 56. Probably will have the best offense in the league. Not sure how their D will do. Weak upfront too. 56 looks fine.
Golden State (51.5-), Projects at 46. I think they're good for at least 48. Too many injury prone players. They have a high ceiling but I don't think that ceiling gets them much over 50. Iggy is a great addition though.
Lakers (36.5-), projects at 32. I'd be surprised if they win more than 32. Gasol is probably getting traded. Kobe has to come back in some kind of playable shape to get past 36. The rest of the team is basically useless or old.
Sacramento (31.5-), projects at 31. They have a weird roster still even with Evans and Robinson gone.
Phoenix (19.5-). Projects at 22. Gortat trade pushes them below. I think they win 17-18.

San Antonio (55.5=), Projects at 55. Sounds right. Duncan will drop off a bit, but the younger guys should be better too.
Houston (54.5-) Projects at 54. I don't think they do so well at mixing Howard and Harden. Kind of an odd combo. But they have so much talent that 50 wins is a no brainer.
Memphis (50.5=) Projects to 50. Has a pretty high ceiling but they have some weaknesses that were exposed last year too.
Dallas (43.5+) Projects to 43. I think they win around 47-48. Dirk wasn't healthy last year. Calderon is a good point guard. I don't like Monte Ellis (he has no point on the court he can make shots from consistently).
New Orleans (39.5=) (Pellies!). Projects to 39. Probably needs to trade Gordon. Should be solid at 39. I don't like Holiday and Evans and Gordon as a backcourt. I love Davis and he should be very good this year.

San Antonio
Golden State
Minnesota (or Denver)

I would see OKC coming out of the west at this point. Their defence is pretty good and the Durant-Westbrook combo is just devastating to most teams out west. A couple of these teams would leap past them with some moves though. Clippers need a big guy. Houston needs probably a shooter/stretch four, Memphis needs shooters of any kind, and San Antonio is still dangerous even with the team they have.

01 October 2013

Shutdown city USA

I have many thoughts on this.

There are actual people, many thousands of them, who are presently out of work because of this. I share a general distaste for the government employing millions of people in the first place, but there are far better ways to trim the rolls and most of the people out of work are not the sort that are doing things I would more strongly disapprove of having in the first place (such as DEA agents, the TSA, the various NSA personnel doing dragnet surveillance on Americans, and most foreign deployed Army forces). It's mostly civilian contractors for defence programmes and some agencies that do "less essential" things, only some of which would fall into those categories of unsavory occupations. Some of these are people who could be in some agency that could be partially or fully privatized and their jobs less subject to partisan budget haggles (some national parks or most of NASA's operations for instance), but that isn't' the state of affairs as yet. And isn't a likely consequence of this whole kerfuffle either. While I think there's some disdain for civilian workers, these are people who were hired under contract to do a job and are largely being dismissed in a haphazard and foolish way, even if only temporarily. This is a form of pain and suffering inflicted on people, and imposes costs for starting and stopping various operations unexpectedly, hiring and training potential replacements if it lasts any appreciable duration, creates unemployment concerns, and so on. The sequester had some similar pain and suffering inflicted but was largely overlooked as this was mostly (but not entirely) impacting poor people. These are mostly middle class professionals now getting hammered. That changes the political impact.

That said, the political impact is that people will hate Congress. But they already hate Congress. A lot. And they had an opportunity to do something about this not long ago, and for the most part, did not. People hate Congress, but mostly think their man in Washington (and it's usually a man) is doing fine. The chances of this are slim in reality, but occur mostly because people have been segregated by years of movement, personal affiliation, and gerrymandering into strong partisan camps for Congressional races. They don't see the problem with their guy because he mostly says things they want to hear, and that's easier to do because they want to hear fewer conflicting things tailored to separate camps (albeit, still plenty of conflicting nonsense is necessary, such as "Medicare shouldn't be cut but deficits are bad"). Republican grassroots backers seem fine with shutting down the government even if the only thing they deign necessary to turn it back on is some concession on ObamaCare. Which isn't a political possibility, and isn't even an effect of shutting down the government.

In general, ObamaCare represents a shift in the economy, but it is not a significant shift in the status quo of health care markets in the US. I don't like all its particulars and would support overturning it, if it were replaced with something more like Wyden-Bennett for instance. But in and of itself, it really isn't that different from what we had before (yet anyway, it could prove more unpredictable, but it's more likely to end up looking like Massachusetts than the UK). So. I'm not really sure why it is the pillar that either party wants to stand and die on. There are more significant deficit busting things the Republicans could have picked in order to be credible on that issue (including, say, the farm subsidies that they voted to increase, but also entitlement reform negotiations or tax reforms, or reductions in defence spending). Portions of the ACA are broadly popular (price transparency, insurance of pre-existing conditions, leaving children on adult insurance longer, etc) and would likely have to be part of any new deal to replace it. So simply getting rid of it will likely turn out less popular than the public imagines for this reason and will not actually be a very effective and popular move for the party that does so. While this idea of tying a delay or a kill it effect to the ACA bill has been floating around a while, the sales job for the general public, rather than the conservative base who already champions the idea, has been very slow in coming around. This makes picking it as a fighting point a very strange move politically. It had zero chance of success, it isn't likely to make the Democrats look like the bad guys to the general public, and so on. There's a possibility of it, simply because this bill isn't that popular either. But the general public wanted a deal, not a shutdown. And that deal wasn't "kill or delay this silly health care law too", it might be some other concession, but something smaller more likely. As a further problem, the bill on the table wasn't even a deal that would solve this problem for a year or two. It was for a few weeks where we would just be back at this same point around Thanksgiving or Christmas. Hurrah for that.

I'm curious what happens now with the default limit in a few weeks. I think most Republican backers (of substantial wealth anyway), are probably okay with a shutdown, if not happy about it. I doubt most of them are okay with a default risk. The business types are in fact, probably pissed about the prospect. I suspect this reflects the division within the Republican party over what to do over the last few months, with party elites trying to push for simple moves to get things over and done with and move on to meaningless symbolic votes against ObamaCare and the like, and the base understanding those symbolic votes won't amount to anything but not understanding that actual votes probably won't either.

In general, I am greatly annoyed that a meaningless potential intrusion into Syria and the government's inability to play together have destroyed the public attention span for the NSA scandals, still ongoing in their revelations. For instance that the NSA decided it may use "enrichment" data without restraint drawn from social media sites, credit cards, insurance records, as part of their investigations and dragnets into American citizens. I don't like having to pay attention to furloughing of civilian workers while the NSA continues unimpeded. It is a distraction from the real business of actual deficit controls and necessary reforms therein, and from the expansion of executive and government power into the lives of ordinary people to have fights over things that do very little of either.

23 September 2013

And now back to the CRA debate


As a general rule, societies are probably going to be better off in the long-run using markets to establish whether discrimination is worthwhile or costly than to impose it as a requirement that it not exist. What happens is mostly that people withdraw from the market under those circumstances that they not practice it, rather than amend any discriminatory market behaviors. Or they go somewhere else where they don't have to. Under the former system, they may continue to operate, but new players may emerge who will not practice such tactics and strategies as refusing to serve particular people on whatever basis. They can then gain market share by serving the people who are turned away, perhaps allowing them to charge lower rates on everyone if they wish and drive out the bigots anyway.

Still. I'm not entirely comfortable with a world where someone can decide they don't want to serve someone as a customer on the basis of "who" they are or what they represent rather than other more personal understandings of their (potential) customer. I'm not sure that anti-discrimination laws are the best way to achieve avoiding that world. It might be that loosing licensing laws for starting many kinds of businesses might be a better option in many cases. Anti-gay discrimination while still prominent, is not so widely spread that there would be many businesses that could long afford refuse it as with Jim Crow (where there were both rigid discrimination laws and centuries of culture in place to do so). From the story, the public as polled broadly opposed to laws allowing businesses to make those discriminatory practices legal. This was probably not the case in the South, or even significant portions of the North in the 1950s and 60s.

The net result of that approach doesn't seem to be appreciated by either proponents of anti-discrimination laws or the people presuming to be attacked by them, that the types of businesses that would discriminate against particular groups of people on some class basis (and not because the customer was some sort of aggrieved asshole personally), can only persist in an environment where discrimination against particular groups of people is a more popular action than not discriminating and thereby not subject to demonstration and protest via popular concern or via competitive market entries. I think there's a case for that with homosexuality, but it's not as strong as Jim Crow was. In part because we've had anti-discrimination laws from Jim Crow era in place preventing people from segregating lunch counters and buses and the like, it seems intuitive to our generation that a photographer shouldn't get the same privilege to segregate what weddings they might do. Might they claim they wouldn't do inter-racial weddings, and how would we interpret that as a behavior? People share a certain discomfort with those still as well as they might with homosexual couples. What this suggests to me is that the type of laws preventing such behaviors are also generally unnecessary, because the public backlash against the businesses that do so could be significant in most cases.

I am unclear on what one's private religious beliefs have to do with photography or floral arrangements that they should deny service of those skills on religious grounds and that this is in fact some variety of religious freedom argument rather than a position of entitled privilege that has finally shifted culturally against traditional practices of discrimination to make those practices now unacceptable rather than tolerated common practice. If one doesn't believe homosexual people should get married on religious grounds, they can find churches and other religious assemblies who share that interpretation and will not perform such ceremonies, and it might even be possible to perform these associated private services like photography or floral arrangements on some contract with those assemblies. But I'm also unclear why it wasn't possible to contract with someone else of equal skill and aplomb to conduct those services locally for the discriminated couples, or to contract with someone who might have more enthusiasm for the task requested and perform it with less disturbance and perhaps a better outcome than someone with private religious misgivings that they express as a basis for their refusal to participate.

I suspect there is a point somewhere in between rigid application of religious principles that I don't understand how they apply under these circumstances and a question about how easy it might be to perform these services professionally to compete against such applications and drive them out of business (or nearly so). That point is very likely some variety of market failure, and some variety of social and perhaps even government response is warranted to correct a social injustice caused by widespread biases and prejudices. I'm not comfortable with the approaches being made available, but I'm also not comfortable with people trying to hide behind "religion" to justify certain market commons behaviors. I think there needs to be some social response to that behavior, and that social response could take the form of protest and economic boycotts, negative reviews, and market competition instead of compulsory laws. 

A brief bit of culture

I have attended... probably a dozen too many films this summer. Some notes.
1) Iron Man 3 so far is still the "best" film throughout this year. Which is weak praise and a low bar. The best part of Wolverine was the end-cap introducing the next X-Men film (next year).
2) The World's End was a modest quasi Monty Python film (mostly because of the ending), and the various spoofs it involved. I would confidently say this is the most enjoyable film I've seen.
3) I haven't caught as many independent films yet (Fruitvale might be on the list so far). And I see a few decent-looking films coming out for Oscar bait. I expect the films will improve, but haven't been impressed so far by anything.
4) There's been several civil rights oriented films (42, Fruitvale, Butler, etc). A note on those on a moment.
5) Most of the historical/biopic style films have been a mess as films, but with interesting moments. Jobs was a mess (the story of Jobs interests people, but the movie was all over the place). The Butler was all over the place and didn't seem to settle into "the Butler" as a story so much as "whatever it is white people are supposed to feel bad about, which at least most of which we/they probably should". 42 was more about our worship and reverence of Jackie than the man and the player (though it did some credit to his play, which I was refreshed by).
6) Man of Steel was terrible and gets worse with every thought related to it (whoops there goes another building with hundreds of civilians, oh well, back to punching the bad guy even though that doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything). I skipped Star Trek. It doesn't sound like I missed much.

The civil rights issue interests me. This is the first generation of Americans without a major civil rights era moment to fight over. Gay rights is a civil rights issue, but it is distinct from the more momentous historical era of repression for blacks and the fights and fits to oppose it in the form of repression. This isn't the same as saying that racism is now defeated. Or that racist election strategies don't still try to pass laws restricting black votes (or Latino votes). But we also don't have fire hoses and dogs out and firebombing and beatings of men and women just fighting for those recognitions. I think therefore between Lincoln (and Django sort of) last year and 42, Butler, and Fruitvale, there's some basis for having these films out. People do need the dramatic impact and power of the stories of our past. Both to remind us that there were serious issues at stake, not that long ago, and that they were, at least in there more serious levels, overcome or can be. The problem with these as films tends to be that they very rarely humanize the figures involved very well and examine their motives and motivations. They function too often as "see, look how evolved we are today!" back-patting moments rather than enlightening portraits into the mixtures and multitudes that human beings contain and are. Racists today are jerks and complete assholes. Racists 50 years ago were, well basically everybody and everyone. There are and were decent people, who are otherwise sensible and capable, but who contain the presence of prejudices. Our prejudices and biases are subtle and insidious and not easily captured by screaming racial epithets at each other. I haven't really seen that covered, that hate is common and can be redeemed in some way more than that hate is stupid. Which it is, but that's kind of a boring film at this point.

Another cultural note:
Why is that shows have trouble ending? Writers can create books that end the story. Sometimes it takes a couple of books to do it, but it can be done. Why do shows have this issue? I've seen very few series terminate in a way that felt sensible, both as a series and as a last season. It's not limited to shows, as movies often have these formulaic battle sequences that get annoying to see with 30 minutes left of just special effects and explosions (even very good effects and explosions are more of "let's see what we can top here" than a good story conclusion).

Some examples:
Sopranos ending seems to have annoyed everyone (I actually liked it, but I also wasn't a huge fan of the show), but it's probably a low point for the series that people are confused if their TV is broken for a minute.

Wire's 5th season is still good, but nowhere near as good as the rest of the series. I never watch it other than a couple of episodes (Omar-Marlo feud coming to a fluky end, Mike killing Snoop, and the finale). Even the 2nd season I will watch on occasion well before sinking into the 5th. I expect part of the reason people keep wanting a 6th season is because 5 was kind of lame relative to expectations. (The 3rd and 4th seasons are still the top sequence of TV show for me, which is why 5 looks so bad in comparison. I've had trouble getting fully into Breaking Bad, but it has had some contention for high expectations on writing and story. And Firefly didn't continue beyond one season and could be the other contender except it worked more like a sci-fi setup and didn't always have a major plot point per episode to keep the writing tighter at times.)

Dexter's 6th and final seasons are a complete mess. The end itself was quite lame really. The show really came off the rails around the beginning of season 6, possibly because Dex stopped killing people as much and mostly because he didn't really have the distractions of "work-life-secret-life" balance. Which was the big part of the story interest of the show was how he concealed himself from those close around him. 7 was okay for that simple reason that he had to reveal and balance himself again.

Mad Men stopped being relevant a couple seasons ago.. and hasn't ended yet.

Homeland started off okay but since the show didn't kill the mole/terrorist as in the original series at the end of season 1, they charted off into 24 territory of absurdity-driven events. Which never ends well, since 24 was pathetic as a story-driven object.

Lost's ending pissed off everyone who followed the show. I didn't follow it since it was a JJ Abrams vehicle, which means it should have been pretty clear after the first couple of seasons that the writers didn't know where they were going. But still, the bad ending has basically dropped the show from the major following it had developed years ago to people just having no interest in it again.

Which is why the Breaking Bad ending seems to have been carried off pretty well.

I'm not sure why this is that challenging to write an ending to a story. Perhaps the problem is that TV shows don't always know this IS the last season, on the expectation that they could be picked up for another if this one does well. This is less of a problem now however for HBO/Showtime/AMC series that seem to have pretty steady control over when they will end, how long or short the series is per season, and so on, so I don't buy this as a full explanation.

I think the better explanation is that a lot of the fairly good series really work more like very extended films to explore a particular universe and its interactions. There's a first season which mostly works to set up the major characters and the universe they populate. A second to flesh them out and introduce new obstacles and characters, and a third or fourth to hit stride in writing and plot (and possibly kill off some people or write them out). It's not impossible to carry the tune out longer if it is working, but it seems like they start experimenting too much with pushing boundaries of the show rather than recognizing the limitations they've created in the universe of characters and working within those with some new twists and challenges that haven't been explored yet.