Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Wrap Up

Got into a heavy-duty discussion over at Amba's place the other day. I had to let things drop, but I wanted to go back and respond to a few things.

Tom Strong wrote in the comments:

But here's the thing: with every stupid bill that gets passed, no matter which party sponsors it, there's a beneficiary. With the pension bills it's your actuarial friends; with Sarbanes-Oxley it was consulting firms (who got all kinds of new business thanks to that legislation); with last year's bankruptcy bill it was the credit card companies. Every new law is for sale, and it doesn't seem to matter a damn which party is sponsoring it.

My guess is, if you asked him, Jack would probably agree that what disturbs him most is the way our laws get written with certain beneficiaries in mind. He refers to them as corporations and aristocrats; more right-leaning observers may instead complain about "special-interest groups." Maybe, just maybe, there's some intersection of agreement there?
But the people who benefit aren't always pushing for the bills. Most of the retirement actuaries I know are also scared that the next piece of legislation that gets passed will be the one to kill the Golden Goose. Most would prefer some sort of reasonable simplification to ERISA law. (On the purely accounting side, Warren Buffet has made some excellent points.)

And SOX was passed mostly because of the media swarm and public alarm following ENRON, WorldCom, etc. That is usually NOT an environment in which to craft good legislation.

But someone benefited in those cases mostly because someone always benefits, not simply because of lobbiests.

One problem of having a large and intrusive government is that anything that government does will have serious consequences for someone. It's only natural that the affected parties will try to do something to influence the outcome. They would be stupid NOT to try and influence the legislative and regulatory processes. And after several decades of this one should expect that a specialized industry will arise to help with those needs. This is a natural outgrowth of large government intervention in the economy.

In another comment, Amba wrote:
I agree with you that progressive policies (of the welfare variety) haven't done poor people any good. Obviously unions did working people good, but became profoundly corrupt and a burden on competition.
This isn't just a union problem, however. Any large entrenched institution will become bloated and rigid. The same thing is true of businesses and government agencies. Markets ultimately 'correct' such problems in the business community, one way or another. Governments are another thing entirely, since they can always raise taxes, issue bonds, or print more money. This provides one motivation for the beliefs of small-government conservatives like myself. Smaller organizations respond more quickly and flexibly than large organizations. This doesn't matter so much when times are good, but those traits are crucial in a crisis. It's also why small-government conservatives such as myself will likely stay home this fall. The idea that the Dems may be worse than the Reps on this issue is no longer enough reason to support the Reps.

Later that same comment....
I guess what I'm getting at is, how Darwinian do we want to be? Is there a group of people in between who aren't bad people, or self-destructive, who are just never going to be competitive enough in this tough climate? How much would society be well-advised to do to protect and equip those people, assuming it's in everyone's long-term interest? (And that we need Indians as well as chiefs?) Education comes to mind (I saw your post about the complete failure to meet the requirement for qualified teachers). Beyond that, I tend to agree with conservatives that culture has a large role to play.
How tough is this climate? There are certainly problems, but on the whole even the poor people here are at least as well off as most of living humanity. (And I dare say quite a bit better off than most of humanity throughout history.)

That said, I do believe we should be equipping our citizens as best we can. There are minimal cultural and educational standards that everyone should attain, except those who are truly incapable. But our educational system has failed in its most basic duties. (I've written about some of my personal experiences here, here, here, here, and here. Warning, that's a hell of a lot of boring personal stuff. In short, the public schools I attended stunk. Those posts do answer a bit more about where I'm coming from and what makes me so angry at times.) But the institutional inertia of the educational system in this country is HUGE, and we'll not likely see any substantial improvement anytime soon. We're locked into a failed system for the duration.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Holy Crap.

The mind simply boggles.

Oscar-winning actor Angelina Jolie has given birth to a daughter fathered by Hollywood movie star Brad Pitt.

Jolie, 30, gave birth to Shiloh Nouvel Jolie Pitt, in Namibia, Africa, People magazine reported yesterday.

...

The Republic of Namibia - the impoverished country of 1.8 million known for its wild remoteness - not only welcomed the movie stars, it handed over control of its international land borders and airspace to them.
Oh my God. Are these people serious? Oh, they're serious. They're as serious as two out of control Hollywood movie stars can be.
As the world awaited the birth of the child at a luxury villa complex on the coast, Namibian authorities said they had bowed to pressure from Jolie and Pitt and granted them the right to ban foreign journalists from entering the country - a remarkable move for the Government of any sovereign state.

The stars told ministers they would quit the country unless allegedly intrusive journalists and paparazzi were brought to heel.
Pitt and Jolie pulled this trick off by use of economic blackmail against a desperately poor Third World nation.
But the exceptionally high-profile presence of Pitt and Jolie promises to be a massive boost to tourist income in the desperately poor country, where the average wage is $46 a week.

Three weeks ago, one South African and three French photographers were expelled from Namibia, a move attacked by human rights groups as a clear breach of the country's civil liberties legislation.
I planned on closing with a rant, but really, what else can be said?

Hat Tip: Drudge, of course.

Update: In the comments, Amba asks, "Are you sure that wasn't in "The Onion"?? It sounds like a parody."

It does sound like a parody, so I've decided to check into this a little more. Here's an AP story that Fox News has posted. It pretty much confirms The New Zealand Herald/Reuters story. Amba won't like this bit, though:
Darryn Lyons, the chairman of Big Pictures, which runs Mr. Paparazzi.com, said in London that the two stars are certain to gain more attention by taking up residence in a poor corner of Africa then they would in the United States.

"I don't think they could have given the people more of an appetite to see the new creature," said Lyons, referring to the decision to hole up in Namibia. "It is the most anticipated baby since Jesus Christ."
The title of this post just became more appropriate. That fits nicely with this story.
LANGSTRAND, Namibia (Reuters) - Half of Namibians voting in an informal radio survey believe the day Angelina Jolie gives birth should be declared a national holiday, an honor usually reserved for kings, queens and national heroes.
Apparently, Namibia hopes this will spark a tourism boom. I do seem to recall that Namibia is a geologist's paradise, but I'm not sure that's what the typical tourist is looking for.

Sorry, Amba. I should have left open the possibility that this was all a parody....

Saturday, May 13, 2006

More Good News About Education

From the Associated Press:

Not a single state will have a highly qualified teacher in every core class this school year as promised by President Bush's education law. Nine states along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico face penalties.

Sigh. I don't have the time today to rip into this story as I would like, but for now I just want to through this out there. Here's a little more that defines "highly qualified":

States often fell short because they did not report accurate or complete data about the quality of the teacher corps, said Rene Islas, who oversees the department's review.

The 4-year-old No Child Left Behind law says teachers must have a bachelor's degree, a state license and proven competency in every subject they teach by this year. The first federal order of its kind, it applies to teachers of math, history and any other core class.

Later in the article the term is defined again:
Although the federal term is "highly qualified," the definition is widely regarded as more of a minimum qualification, because it requires teachers to know what they teach.
Why did the states hire teachers that didn't meet the standards outlined above?
Some teachers, particularly in small or rural areas, handle many subjects and have not met the law's details in each one. Many schools struggle just to find teachers in math, science or special education. And turnover is common, often blamed on salary and stress.
I've got points I would like to make about this, but most will have to wait until tomorrow. One that won't wait is this: If the states are willing to hire unqualified people for teaching, for which other functions are they willing to hire unqualified people? Until then, I'll let my five other readers comment away!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Pick-Up Truck Madness

I saw the second strangest thing I've ever seen on a pick-up truck this morning. I was at a stoplight behind a truck with a customized license plate: ATHENA-1. Goddess of Wisdom and a pick-up truck. Hunh.

The strangest thing I've ever seen on he back of a pick-up truck goes back to my Baltimore days. We lived in Reisterstown, a suburb of Baltimore on the northwest side of town. Reisterstown sits on the edge of horse and farm country. Back towards town is Pikesville, which is the center of Baltimore's Jewish community. Naturally, some of the Jewish people also lived in Reisterstown. This can lead to a strange hybrid.

In the days immediately after 9/11/2001, I started seeing a pick-up driving around Reisterstown with one of these strange hybrids at the wheel. It was one of those monstrous Fords. At the rear corners, two flag poles had been inserted into the body of the truck, and from these flew two flags, about three feet tall each: one American flag, and one Israeli flag! Yes, the strangest thing I've ever seen in a pick-up truck is a redneck Jew....

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Speaking of making a silk purse from a sow's ear...

It's now also possible to make crude oil from pig shit.

"We are the first to actually do this," professor Yuanhui Zhang says proudly of his team's ability to turn swine manure into crude oil. He's a bio-environmental engineer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who has led the 10-year research project that recently announced a breakthrough in porcine petroleum.

Is there anything pigs can't do?

Update: Killjoy.

Friday, May 05, 2006

That Reminds Me!

Amba comments on the post below about comfort music. In her comment she brings up Gregorian chants. Yes!

Back in the days of my mis-spent youth, about 22 years ago, me and a friend of mine used to tear ass all over Orlando in his mother's Mustang. Being teenagers we of course played our music WAY too loud, and generally acted like a couple of assholes. (Okay, we were a couple of assholes.) Heavy metal was our music of choice: Led Zepplin (duh), Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, Judas Priest....

Then, as now, Orlando had a lot of older residents and a lot of tourists. You know, the kind of people that roll up their windows and lock their car doors when a couple of punks playing loud music pull up alongside them at a stoplight in the middle of the night. Well, we were a bunch of jerks, but we weren't really punks, so we got no respect at stop lights. You've either got that air of menace, or you don't, and we didn't. People looked at us and sniffed in annoyance, but no windows went up on our account.

My friend's mother was Catholic, and she had unusual tastes. (At least they seemed so at the time. Now I know much more of her back story, and everything makes sense now. Bright teenagers are still idiots when it comes to understanding people. Incidentally, I owe her my left leg.) One night we're driving around, and bored with our music. So I started rummaging around the glove box looking for something that didn't suck. (Maybe he was playing his damn Keel tape. Some people have no taste.) And there it was: a collection of Gregorian chants! So we popped that in to the cassette player and blasted away!

At the very first red light we catch, there's an older couple in the next lane. The windows went up, the doors were locked, and they tore out of there like bats out of Hell when the lights changed! All that time and all we needed to scare people was Gregorian chants!

How many nights did we waste without that knowledge? Or with that knowledge? (Answer: All of them!)

[Thanks for dredging up that memory Amba!]

Comfort Music

Reader_Iam brings up the topic of comfort music over at Done With Mirrors. She writes:

And here's something that I ponder, personally: I AM "reader I am," but my refuge is music, not words. Son of a gun. What's that about? Feel free to speculate.
Music is more primal than words: it appeals directly to the senses and doesn't demand thought. When the music is right it just resonates with our more primitive selves. One can be in the moment, with no thought of future or past. That's practically the essence of comfort. But words, no matter how well crafted, require that we engage higher brain functions, and thinking is not comforting, even when it is pleasurable.

She also asks, "What music--and it could be anything----gives you comfort?"

When I was younger, Pink Floyd's One of These Days used to always cheer me up, as did Murder by Numbers by The Police. (One of The Days has exactly one line: "One of these days I'm going to cut you into little pieces.") I've always had a black sense of humor, and these songs always cheered me up. They still hold a certain nostalgic appeal.

More comfort music:
  • J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concertos (Bach's music creates a belief that God is in His Heaven and all is right with the Universe. Perfect for those of us who love Algebra!)
  • Straus, Blue Danube Waltz (Light and joyful, in 3/4 time. It conjures up memories of the best of 19th century Europe. And spaceships.)
  • Motorhead's album, Sacrifice (Sometimes, violence is the order of the day. You gotta problem with that?!)
  • Butthole Surfers, the first seven songs on Electriclarryland (Sometimes weirdness is the order of the day. Who better than Gibby Haines for such moods?)
  • Elastica's self-titled album Elastica (This might not count, as the lead singer actually gets me quite worked up.)
  • C. Saint-Saens, The Carnival Of The Animals: Aquarium (One of the most calming and beautiful pieces of music ever written, it never fails to put me in a dream-like state.)
  • Jimi Hendrix, Third Stone from the Sun (Brings back many memories of hot sticky Florida summers, all of them good.)

A couple of other works that I used to love have been killed by overuse in commercials in recent years: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. (Yes, even the Ode to Joy can be killed off by commercial abuse.) Fortunately, I'm starting to require my love of the Ninth. And there's still the Fifth Symphony.

I may add more over the weekend as stuff comes back to me.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Online Integrity Makes Me Wish I Had a Cigarette

Over at Done With Mirrors, several of us have been having a discussion about the new Online Integrity campaign for a civil online community.

Online Integrity bills itself as "A nonpartisan, nonideological commitment to basic decency." They include a preliminary Statement of Principles:

  • Private persons are entitled to respect for their privacy regardless of their activities online. This includes respect for the non-public nature of their personal contact information, the inviolability of their homes, and the safety of their families. No information which might lead others to invade these spaces should be posted. The separateness of private persons’ professional lives should also be respected as much as is reasonable.
  • Public figures are entitled to respect for the non-public nature of their personal, non-professional contact information, and their privacy with regard to their homes and families. No information which might lead others to invade these spaces should be posted.
  • Persons seeking anonymity or pseudonymity online should have their wishes in this regard respected as much as is reasonable. Exceptions include cases of criminal, misleading, or intentionally disruptive behavior.
  • Violations of these principles should be met with a lack of positive publicity and traffic.

Okay, that seem reasonable enough. But as Callimachus points out (second link above):

But the real problem is, people who would do the kind of cruel and twisted things this statement is meant to protect against have no integrity to lose in the first place, so they'd lose none by signing a pledge and then breaking it.

I have another problem with the intial OI post, which I make in a comment over at DWM:

[I]t is essential that we seize upon the best aspects of the internet — its self-policing, democratic nature — and use them to set an example of reasoned restraint and considered civility.

Whoa, there! Whoa, I say! That sounds similar to some of the old Soviet propoganda I used to read. I'm not liking that at all.

(Italicized portion from OI's post, the rest is me.)

The problem is this: how are they going to police this effort? Especially since in the first post they've already started down the path of mission creep. Are they about privacy rights, or "reasoned restraint and considered civility"? On another post at OI, one of the founders brings up the need to add a common definition of racism to their list of principles. (Which makes me wonder how long the iconoclasts of GNXP will keep their name on the petition.) Not even a week into this and they are already expanding their list of abiding "principles " at a pretty fast clip.

I predict that enforcement will prove to be impossible. Even when attempting to clearly define some basic privacy rights, they get bogged down with nebulous concepts such as "misleading, or intentionally disruptive behavior." So much for vigorous debate, then! And now they want to add a definition of racism as well.

I predict that inside of two weeks the whole thing will collapse as any kind of real blog "movement". Bickering about definitional and policing issues has already broken out in the comment threads, as well as a discussion of whether or not civility makes any tactical sense for the left side of the blogosphere. It's going to be really difficult to maintain any civility when the likes of Quxxo and Thersites are lurking about. And if OI can't control their own comment sections, how are they going to clean up the rest of the blogoshpere?

Ultimately, this whole pledge business reminds me of the "Truth" ads. Those ads were designed to make people not smoke tobacco. But they were just so earnestly self-rightous that every time I saw one, it made me want to go smoke a carton of Marlboros just to piss them off.

...

The following is a personal digression. I originally meant for it to be in the body of the post, but realized it had no real point and cut it out. However, having typed the thing I'm loath to delete it. I'd just skip it if I were you....

The more I read over at the OI site, the more it reminds me of a discussion board I once belonged to. It had originally been devoted to one topic, but more and more people kept discussing off-topic issues. Finally, the board was split, one for the original topic ONLY (posting rules strictly enforced), and the other a catch-all for everything else. This was happening in the months after 9/11, so you can imagine what the "everything else" consisted of.

After a few weeks (or was it days? or months? the memory fades....), it became clear that we needed moderators for the new catch-all board. Somehow, in a fit of mass insanity, I was nominated to be a moderator, I accepted the nomination, and was elected to one of the three spots. The other moderators and I had offline discussions about how exactly we would moderate the board. One of the clear rules we came up with was that short of someone posting something downright threatening (one poster had threatned to do commit acts of violence against another member in the past) we would need to have at least two of the three of us agree to deleting any posts. (It was acknowledged that this would be somewhat difficult, as the board was global in scope.)

This agreement lasted about two days before one of the moderators decided to start deleting posts that he disagreed with for whatever reason. Once other posters started complaining, I looked into it and found nothing policy-wise that I would object to in most of the deleted posts. I complained to the private moderators mailing list, and got no response. I posted to the discussion board and the other moderator started deleting all of my posts. After about a week as moderator I quit the position, and the board. I don't go back, and I'm happier for it. Perhaps that's the way to deal with "uncivil" members of the blogosphere.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Am I the only one....

... who's tired of reading various blogs that think that removing Saddam was BAD but think that the largest moral imperative of the time is that we ought to go kill a bunch of Sudanese drug-addicts forthwith? Yes? I am? Well, never mind then....

Oh, fuck it, it's my blog and I can be an asshole if I want. At the second link above, Michael Reynolds blogs about his experience at the anti-Darfur-genocide wankfest in DC last Saturday.

Speakers began shouting around 1:30. Always shouting. The theme was “Never again.” The unintended lesson was: don’t try to sound like Martin Luther King. Good advice for public speakers: do yourself a favor and do not try, “I have a nightmare, today.” Just don’t. Especially in rabbinical cadences. For half an hour afterward I couldn’t stop doing the “I Have a Dream” speech as Jackie Mason Jr.: “Oy, such a dream I have today.”

That quote about captures the flippant tone of the post up until Reynolds decides to work himself into a state of high dudgeon:

If we’re seriously opposed to genocide it seems to me we have to be ready to think very seriously about having the means, and the will, to send troops to shoot some of these evil bastards in the head. As it happens, we’re in the middle of just such a head-shooting venture. However muddled the thinking, however disastrous the planning, however dishonest the sales job, Iraq is in part about taking out a murderous thug who was, without question, the moral equal of any Janjaweed rapist or child killer.

Hey, great, someone acknowledging that force just might be necessary to stop killers with guns! Hallelujah! Praise God and pass the ammunition!

But wait, there's more! You know these good centrist blogs can't post anything without blaming Bush for all the world's evil:

Part of the reason I seethe at the Bush administration’s incompetence, is that the underlying notion that the United States has the right to pre-emptively defend itself, and the moral obligation to use its power to get between people like the Janjaweed and their victims, is correct. We have the right to defend ourselves, even if it means striking first, and we have the moral obligation, where possible, to shoot the man who would murder a child. Those ideas have both been damaged almost beyond repair by the arrogant, reckless, swaggering stupidity of this administration.

This passage led Justin Gardner over at the first link to make the following supremely stupid comment:

And then this about the US losing the ability to claim the moral high ground and take the thugs out...

Brilliant. Truly scathing. Except for this little problem mentioned in the post Justin gushes over:

People who oppose the Iraq venture often do so on grounds that we have no right to “impose” our world view. Some oppose the war in Iraq on grounds that we failed to build international consensus. Well, what’s needed in Darfur is for us to impose our world view — the one that says, “don’t throw babies onto bonfires, don’t gang-rape women.” And international consensus is hard to achieve when major world players like China and Russia have no moral objection to genocide, and when the French and Germans are so compulsively anti-American in their policies that they would welcome, to steal a Simpsons line, “our new insect overlords,” if it meant poking Uncle Sam in the eye.

Of course Justin, with his soft-stick-of-butter-sharp wit, missed that paragraph.

For whom - from whom - do we have to claim the moral high ground? The Russians? Yes, their hands are clean. China? Well, China is complicit in the genocide in Darfur, not to mention their other problems with human rights in China itself. The French? The fact that the French government was on Saddam's payroll should disqualify them from sitting in judgement of the character of other nations. That goes double for the leadership of the UN.

When reviewing the cast of characters that comprise the international community one can't help but notice that few nations can truly claim any kind of moral high ground, and that those nations matter least. (Who fears the legions of Iceland?) Talk of a moral high ground in international relations, and the US having lost its deed to that particular piece of real estate, brings to mind the words of that great 1980s philosopher Cindy Lauper: "The mind simply boggles!" What are these people thinking? Do they really think the world revolves around their sheltered concept of morality? Are they truly that ignorant of both history and current events?

...

Reynolds keeps coming back to the phrase "Never again!", and wonders if "we’re just mouthing off to make ourselves feel good." He states

The fact is and will remain that if we genuinely intend to stop genocide everywhere it rears its nasty head, then yes we’re going to need international law, and yes we’ll want diplomacy, but yes we’ll need bullets, too.

Of course, his earlier paragraph about how the Russians and Chinese will block all efforts in Darfur seems to have already escaped him. We saw what diplomacy can do more than a decade ago in Rwanda: it will send observers to watch 400,000 people get hacked to death, refuse to do anything to stop it, then give the diplomat in charge of allowing the slaughter the Nobel Peace Prize and allow him to bleed a country dry to make himself and his family rich. Yes, that's the fruits of international law and diplomacy! But we should hang our heads in shame because, you know, Guantanamo. We've ceded the moral high ground.

...

After WWII, the phrase "Never again!" entered the public consciousness, a cry of horror at the evil that men had wrought. The horror, and the cry, and the conviction faded quickly from consciousness for all but the Jews. First, Eastern Europe was abandoned to the Soviet regime. And western Europe, exhausted after decades of war and economic depression, jettisoned their colonial possessions, abrogating their responsibilities to the peoples they had chosen to rule.

Since then, we have seen genocide and mass slaughter again, and again, and again, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. And rarely, if ever, does anything happen in time to stop the worst of the killing.

The reason for this has to do with diplomacy, and international law, and the willpower of the peoples of the free world, who are the only ones who really care even a little bit. (A nomad sitting in his yurt in Central Asia doesn't care about genocide in Darfur. This is not a moral failing on his part. He may not even know where or what Africa is, and in any event has more immediate concerns with his daily existence. The kind of moral preening we're discussing is a luxury afforded to the rich.)

We have seen again and again that diplomacy and international law do nothing more than provide cover for regimes that want to do nasty things. (See above regarding China and Russia.) We have also seen again and again that the free peoples of the world aren't willing to do the hard work of enforcing even the most basic justice in the nasty places of the world. If we don't have the will to stay the course in Iraq, what makes anyone believe that we are willing to spend the lives and treasure necessary to police the African continent? Millions die in Africa in wars that most people in the free world have never even heard of. And yet, 1000 lives lost per year is enough to make America eat itself over perceived failures.

No, I don't want to hear any more about Darfur, especially from those who opposed doing anything in Iraq. The free peoples of planet Earth aren't really interested in doing the hard work of making "Never again!" actually mean anything. If they were, we wouldn't actually need to know where Darfur is on a map, because we would have never allowed things to get this bad.